John Muir Trail Talk. . . Feeling the Body

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One thing that had the capacity to consistently pierce the veil of rumination was my body, and my body’s constant voice in the production of emotion. The evidence, especially the neuroscientific evidence, is that emotion is primary and body-based, and mostly unconscious by nature. Of course as we develop, our emotions, like almost everything else about us, are formed into habits and associated with stories; unfortunately they tend to remain unconscious, wreaking havoc with our intentions for our lives. My body spoke out there in the wilds, and so did my emotions. I suppose it would be fair to say that I became aware of my emotions. There was space for them, and there were also demands upon them, so it felt as though something came into balance. As corny as it may sound to the ears of desk-working commuters, my body, my feelings, and my thinking mind were in some kind of balance out in the wilds, an experience quite distinct from ‘ordinary life,’ such that I never needed my bed, nor my glass of wine, much less a therapy session, or even a religious service. A massage would have been nice, though.

On the first day out I turned my ankle, and was instantly reinforced for having decided to wear leather hiking boots. That ankle tweaked a little over the next few days, but this served as a reminder to be careful. And I was very careful in the placement of my feet. For 21 days, I knew where my feet were. That alone creates some mind-body balance, to actually be aware of what your feet are doing, moment by moment for several days. This was quite different from young Anne’s backpacking, she who went out alone and, for example, walked down a steep pass barefoot, after taking off boots to cross a stream, causing a stress-fractured foot in the process, only really getting the message weeks later. Oh, this behavior is not for older Anne! Watch your step girl, too many broken bones already threaten to send arthritic messages. And then there was the huffing and puffing as the habitual sins of over-consumption became more than theoretical messages or cholesterol readings on that second day up and over Donohue Pass. It was hard to carry excess body weight along with a 45-pound pack, it was very hard. I questioned the wisdom of it, as I wondered about the health trade-offs of working my muscles hard while wearing down my skeleton.

The day after the full moon, when my physical training was well underway and my energy reserves good, I felt a strange euphoria, almost light-headed, but not uncomfortable, and it went on and on. Very strange, I couldn’t place it. . . then remembered “runner’s high.” I had a whole day of runner’s high, combined with amazing views of mountain top panorama to the West, just south of Mammoth Mountain and Reds Meadow, as we hiked away from Deer Creek, where we’d camped and slept several extra hours during an afternoon thunder and hail storm. I can’t get away from the word ‘natural’ in describing the experience of my body. I was tired because I’d worked hard, and there was a storm that allowed for extra sleep, and I slept—so did Diane—while the thunder rolled and the hail pounded, and I got up to eat and I slept again all through the night. Then there was the day when I noticed that I could just stand up from a squat with my pack on.

There were other moments of blissful body awareness, sometimes with no thoughts at all, like focusing on the placement of my walking poles as I crossed stream after stream of water rushing over polished rocks. There was the stunning cold of the water, making feet numb in the time it took to get from one side of a little creek to the other side. On one occasion Diane abraded the bottom of her foot and didn’t know it till later when it hurt again after the numb of cold wore off. Knowing there was no easy treatment option if I sustained an injury helped me to focus my chronically wandering attention. My right shin, especially, cumulatively chronicled the wanderings of my mind. There were other things, like blisters on my feet that required constant attention, and when I misunderstood them, as when I thought my sock was wrinkling but it was my foot that was wrinkling, I paid a price. So I learned to carry my pre-cut moleskin strips where I could get to them. Washing socks that I carried outside the pack to dry became a habit. Imagine this: keeping a supply of clean and dry socks was more urgent than any office politics or evening news. Oh dropping reactivity, oh lazing cortisol levels!

I often ached in the late afternoon or early evening as we made camp. I had one twelve-advil day, but that was early in the training, that arduous long fourth day, up to Agnew Pass and down along the San Joaquin River. On the trail I didn’t have a chair or a bed, but I had Big Agnes, the glorious sleeping pad, and a very good sleeping bag, and my down sweater as my pillow. The comforts of these rivaled anything I have at home. And what I did for my body was to rest and later, as my reserves were being used, I ate carefully too. It rings strange in my ears to say “I” about these things, because they were a natural and effortless “we.” Diane was tired, too, and needed to eat. We naturally divided tasks; she did the cooking and dish washing, I did the water fetching and purification. Together we set up and took down the tent, we unpacked and repacked our packs. To be fair, she did more of the camp work, especially in the early part of the journey, because she had more strength and more energy. She did not complain, being both generous and disciplined, and being uncommonly able to perceive and relate to reality.

Over those 21 days, I came to a real acquaintance with my feet, my knees, my hips, my shoulders, but also, and more unexpectedly with my emotional feelings. Those mornings or evenings of shared camp tasks were times of conversation, making over the weeks an extended conversation in which I learned things I’d not known about Diane, a very close friend for the last fifteen years, and I learned things about myself, too.

I would begin to talk about something, my grandmother Gwendolyn, for example, and burst into tears. Who would have expected Grandma Gwen, the discounted person, the buffoon, the embarrassment, to show up around our little fire, bringing a storm of emotion with her? Grandma Gwen who played overturned trash cans with drum fans and who knew the Charleston and who could barely move her 300+ pound body, Grandma Gwen, who was a victim of her gendered and duplicitous culture, who was a victim of multipleincest after her mother died. She was 12 years old, ripe for the picking. Grandma Gwen who was coerced to have an abortion she did not want, and who grieved the rest of her life for that baby daughter, buried in a shoe box, as she told it in secretive little side conversations with her granddaughters many years later. How the secrets leaked from her, oh so inappropriately! She cracked under the strain of her necessary secrets, and was, at best, a lovable crackpot; at worst she was a terribly embarrassing burden. And how I boil and bristle in my knowledge of the proprieties of her time and place; how I rage for her now; and even worse is the well of grief for her wasted life. Gifted Gwendolyn, eye of the storm, who sent the ripples of her dilemma down through the generations. And there she was, sitting on the rocky outcrops with us, falling from my eyes in a sudden gush of tears. It happened more than once, that someone like Gwen came to me at the camp fire.

Though as adults, we may rarely awaken to this moment, when we do awaken, it is as something that we awaken, and into something that we awaken. The common source of both our “as” and the world’s “is” is nature, human nature and the natural world. Though our daily world in ‘normal’ life is radically reconfigured by technology, it is still earth, air, fire, and water in some configuration; even if that configuration is metal beams made of fire and earth, air conditioning made of fire and air, glass, brick, and stone, made of fire and earth, tap water, toilet water, pool water, bottled water, made of fire and water. As I write, I notice what climate scientists are shouting about, the presence of fire, or energy, in all of our technologically driven life, fire there at a rate that cannot be processed in a balanced way with the other elements. Overuse of fire all the way to global warming. No wonder the gods punished Prometheus! I took a course in global warming, and, if I remember correctly, it would take the energy of six hundred human deep knee bends to keep a single light bulb burning for a minute.

Over the course of our JMT experience, more of the fire came from our bodies themselves, transforming fat reserves and food into fire for walking, carrying a heavy load, and camp tasking. This was arduous but—oh, how can I possibly describe this for those of us who sit a desk to earn our living, then try to work the tension out of our necks and shoulders? The tensions were much more evenly distributed, which is to say that my feet hurt, and my legs ached, and my hips hurt, and my back wanted to be stretched out after carrying that pack all day. I needed my sleep, and, even when my sleep was interrupted I rested deeply during the night. But my head? No headaches, no brain fatigues, no eye strain. No racing thoughts, no psychosomatic symptoms. And no energy indebtedness to future generations, should there be future generations.

Unlike most women (according to published research and journalistic reports), I don’t hate my body. Of course, I have a running critique—contrary to reports, I am not from another planet. But I have a sense of joy in her capacities; there was the day when I dove headlong into Evolution Lake at 12,000 feet, wanting the fresh of it, the cold of it, the stroke and kick of me. I cannot recall a time of life without this embodied joy, except perhaps a few months of the years when my neck was broken and pain dominated. Even with pain, there has always been the superb pleasure of moving through the world because I can. I thank you God for most this amazing body, even cringing while I imagine others picturing me and laughing. That body hatred does not go with the turf of being female; it’s market driven. It’s delightful to be in here.