A River Runs through It

Last night on the road. My. Last. Night.

I’m just about half an hour outside of Missoula Montana, and it is as beautiful as you can imagine. Route 90 pipes down and winds along the Clark Fork river and the mountains are close and sagey, soft looking. Even though there are still hours of light, I pulled off before 6:00 at the Bear Creek State Park and grabbed a site before I got to that point of perpetual-motion sickness I felt last night. There are just under seven hours to go tomorrow, which is a good three or more less than I’ve been averaging.

I can still hear the highway, but I don’t really care. I have earplugs and that white noise has been ever present day in and out since I set out four days ago. And it might slack off over night.

This morning, I woke at dawn, and it was windy and cold as it had been all night. As I was about half an hour from Devil’s Tower, I decided to get on the road right away and check it out. I am completely in love with that place!

It says a lot about this culture that anyone would name that place Devil’s anything. It is a compellingly majestic and benevolent structure. She–for surely it is a She, a manifestation of Panchamama, Gaia, Mother Earth–rises up into view as you drive west on route 14, appearing and disappearing with each turn if the road. She has one face going west and another going east.

I stopped on the road and took Her picture from each angle and in the rapidly changing light, first under drizzly clouds, later against deep blue with a backdrop of cumulus. None of them captures her exquisite beauty. At Her feet are furrowed fields in alternating arcs of green and brown or pastures blazing with fragrant yellow ground cover.

I felt, gazing upon Her on my eastbound trip back to the highway the way I’d felt in Peru. As if I was under Her spell and could have sat on the grassy golden roadside at Her feet all day.

Native people have many names for Her, and She is a sacred site marking a variety of ceremonial uses. The local tribes ask climbers to refrain from scaling her 1267 feet in the month of June when many sacred ceremonies are held such as vision quests and the Lakota Sun Dance on the solstice. I felt especially blessed to receive Her benediction on this last day of June at the end of my own journey into renewal.

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Devil’s Tower, Divine Grace

I’m sitting at a picnic table at Reuter’s Campground in Sundance Wyoming, a short distance from Devil’s Tower (of Close Encounters’ fame) and about 11 hours from Austin MN which I left at 8:00 this morning.

I was seduced again by the slipping backward of the clock one hour somewhere in South Dakota. That and the bright sunlight that said “too early to stop,” so I kept on, waiting for a clear sign to call it a day.

Despite the first stand alone Starbucks the exit past Mt Rushmore that felt like a long lost friend and where I cashed in on a free drink, a grande latte with an extra shot, my body mind connection was decidedly starting to misfire. It’s a funny thing how it starts to go, I could and did continue driving, but talking on the phone, once to a new work colleague and once to a job candidate showed me the cracks.

My desire to avoid another night in a motel and resistance to commercial RV campgrounds pushed me on. At the sign for Sundance, with its historical and pop culture resonance, I pulled into a rest area, parked under a tree and sat on the grass with my phone and the fairly useless Michelin atlas I bought on Amazon Prime back in PA. Between them, I found the Black Hills National Forest with its tiny tent symbols on the map and the Web page on my phone that listed Reuter’s Campground. Google Maps said it was 17 minutes away and was first come, first served. I set out with a prayer on my lips.

I pulled in behind a large camper bearing a D for Deutschland sticker on its bumper and waited for the host, Laura, to register me and collect my ten bucks. I was so grateful that I literally had tears in my eyes.

It’s good to land somewhere, and when it’s below a lupine and pine covered slope with the sun slanting through on its way down to the other side of the world, cool and quiet and only marginally populated, that is a blessing.

There’s a whole other post about passing through South Dakota and this bit of Wyoming, the great grasslands and the badlands with their shameful commodification and negation of the First People’s history and obliteration. Custer this and cowboy that. I saw the great nation in my mind’s eye, the great hoop of Black Elk’s vision as the land rolled out in the four directions and above and below without end.

Austin, MN: Home of Hormel

I got a bit of a late start today.  I woke around 6, and headed up to the showers hoping to beat the crowd, which I did.  I went back to the tent and did my yoga and meditation practice, then wrote this morning’s post.  I was hankering for a decent latte, so I typed coffee into Google Maps on my phone and saw a place called Cahoots in downtown Angola.  I always like a chance to explore small towns, so I decided to add on the extra half hour it would take to drive over there and back to the highway.  It was a hazy humid morning, and the road from the park to town was lined with the typical strip malls and businesses.  The heart of downtown, though, is worth the visit.  It’s a charming 19th century Midwestern town with a circular center of quaint Victorian buildings.

Unfortunately, the road running to Cahoots was under construction, and everything was closed, so I walked back and stopped in at the Coachlight.  It was a swanky loungey sort of place, empty except for one customer sitting at one of the nice round tables setting up real estate appointments.  The young barista gave me her take on what’s wrong with the government (based on my exclamation that there is tax in Indiana on latte). She was good natured, and I encouraged her to run for office!

It was a pokey drive for the first half of the day.  The traffic from Gary to beyond Chicago was heavy even for a Saturday.   It was a peak moment for me to finally split off from 90/94 onto 90 proper, the road that will take me nearly all the way home to Washington. I hit it at 1000 miles at 2:00 this afternoon. Immediately, the road is different, grassier in the median, less traffic, more space.  Quieter.  This happens just past Madison, WI. My beloved, who has driven this route many times has always said, once you get past Chicago and Madison, you’re in the country. Dropping onto 90 was a breath of fresh air and a chance to pick up the pace.

At the Wisconsin Minnesota border, you cross the Mississippi early on its path south from its origins at Lake Itasca in MN.  It’s at its highest level in 20 years due to this summer’s heavy rains, and crossing it today was a thrill.  It was as wide and muddy up here as it is where it runs through New Orleans.  It gave a whole new meaning to the phrase “west of the Mississippi.”

I know that Montana is famous for its “Big Sky,” but the the sky in southern Minnesota is pretty spectacular.  In fact, all of southern Minnesota from the Wisconsin border west is gorgeous.  As I drove west on 90, the landscape was hilly and then emerald green with corn and I don’t know what all growing on both sides of the road. Towers of cumulus clouds rose up into the sky, and for 180 degrees as far as I could look both left and right there was nothing to break it.  Nothing but green and a thousand shades of blue and gray separated by two ribbons of black on either side of a wide median.

I stopped off in St. Charles for gas and a break.  It was getting to that point when the sheer movement of the trip was a little overwhelming. A drive like this is not unlike a long flight. There’s constant movement and at the same time complete or nearly complete stillness.  It’s meditative and a little straining. When I got out of the car, I could feel that the air had started to cool.  It was sometime after 4.  I put down the top and set off again. What a blessing to be intimate with the air that way.  I was engulfed in it.   At some point there were fields and fields of windmills, huge and white spinning like swimmers or pinwheels, mesmerizing, stretching as far as the eye could see.  It was like a dream, motion and stillness meeting, kissing, embracing, parting and then the same all over again.

As I drove, the sky got cloudier, and the clouds got darker.  The wind picked up.  It was exhilarating to speed along through this aliveness, one with the weather.  I was trying to beat the rain.  By 5:30, it was as dark as night and a fine rain had begun.  I had seen signs for hotels in Austin, and I sped past a neon sign that said “Vacancy: Exit Here.”  It would make a good story to say that I heeded that message and got inside before the storm.  But I went on  in search of a Super 8, which I thought would be a better bargain.  In the end,  in the pouring rain, I turned around and went back the two exits that brought me here.

I’m tucked away in a small “suite,” sort of a one bedroom kitchenette at the Rodeway Inn in Austin, MN, home of Hormel Meats and Spam!  You can smell its smokiness in the air. There’s a SPAM museum, the Hormel Institute and a Jay C. Hormel Nature Center.  I was able to park right outside my door, which was a help with the various small bags and food and water to bring in from the car.  The rain is pelting the front of the building.  Outside the bedroom window is a tree that breaks the view to the small road and the Shell station on the other side.  It’s a different kind of homeyness than last night.  I feel grateful for this slice of roadside America, for this room and the rain and the 1113 mile behind me.

SPAM Museum

SPAM Museum, Austin, MN

 

 

Night in Angola

Yesterday was the first day of my drive west. I did almost 600 miles in around nine hours. Pennsylvania is a wide state. I left Bryn Mawr at 8:13 and crossed into Ohio at 2:00. Route 76, which in Philly we know as the Schuykill Expressway that is typically clogged with traffic, in its west bound leg quickly opens up to farm land and then climbs into the Laurel Highlands. If you’re a person of a certain age, you might remember beer ads that used this phrase to tout the fresh water of its brew. I’ve forgotten the brand, but as I entered the tunnel that bears the Pennsylvania Highlands name, the sunshine and high clouds and verdant hillsides brought back a nostalgic memory of childhood.

Over the border, 76 West becomes the Ohio Turnpike, and the traffic becomes lighter yet. Ohio has beautifully designed modernist rest stops that are as airy and welcoming as its landscape. I remembered the Starbucks where my beloved and I stopped two winters ago when we did this trip together. It was uncrowded as the roadway, the only other patron a man in a Seattle tee shirt. I thought to ask him which way he was going, east or west, but he was wearing his ear buds and the fixed concentration of the solitary traveler.

I had set Angola, particularly Pokagon State Park as my potential destination uncertain if I’d make if this far. When I realized I was getting close sometime around 5:00, I called their reservation number to make sure they still had room. The attendant informed me that there’s a two day minimum on weekends. This was disappointing news, especially as I’d already called twice before during the week to talk to agents about the likelihood of getting a spot without reservation. I was quite disappointed with and decided to take my chances on finding camping by following road signs.

When the sign for Pokagon came along, I signaled and exited the highway. Driving into the park from the road, I relaxed into its slower pace and deep greenery. I paid the $7 out of state fee to enter the park and flowed the signs for the campground entrance past the wilderness preserve and the elegant lodge and restaurant. At the camping gateway, I was greeted by a vested volunteer with the question, do you have a reservation?

I told them that I had just driven the first nine hours of a cross country trip and was hoping to spend a night. She conferred with the staff at the gatehouse and they did indeed find me a spot.

The campground is large and well treed. At 6:30 it was smoky with dinners cooking and busy with bike and foot traffic. Families were gathered around picnic tables or sprawled in beach chairs, bathing suits and towels like prayer flags lining their sites. It was altogether a good feeling place. Safe. Green. And with a promise of peaceful sleep.

Even through my earplugs I heard a guitar strumming, s’mores making, laughter and the one very unhappy baby whose wails had earlier filled the bath house. Maybe she is teething. It can be a painful business this being alive. Her mother had spoken soothingly to her from the shower while also monitoring the tooth brushing of her two bigger sisters with their clean wet hair and fuzzy pajamas.

I drifted into sleep amongst these fellow campers and woke at dawn to songbirds and crows and a wood pecker somewhere off in the distance. I showered and did some yoga in my tent. It’s time for breakfast and breaking down my temporary shelter to get back on the road. Where will I sleep tonight?

Remembrance of Junes Past

photo

It’s a perfect early summer morning here. Lush and green and pink with roses, rich with birdsong and sunlit through the maples.  It feels like every summer morning of my early life, growing up in a small town in South Jersey or early days in Philadelphia.  Humidity has its gifts, especially in the morning before the heat comes on.  The grass is wet and fragrant, and everything green glows with plumpness. Just now, hanging some jeans on the line (that I can be sure will take all day to dry in this ninety-two percent humidity), I was struck by this full sensory beauty.  I’m relishing it, the morning’s coolness, the windows open, the shifting shadows of leaves on the screens and the brick wall of the house next door.

Being here for this brief week just before and after the Solstice is nourishing in its way.  June has special resonance for me as it’s the month of my birthday and my mother’s birthday, Father’s Day and my sister’s wedding anniversary.  It seems that it’s always had a lot in it, the end of school and the start of summer vacations in childhood.  I’ve been aware recently how certain times of the year, this month for example, hold a special resonance for me, for most people, I would think.  There are the obvious ones like Christmas or Thanksgiving, Memorial Day or the 4th of July.  But then there are the less public times, those that live in the synesthesia of memory where smell, sounds, light and body sensations merge into a deep energetic response familiar only to the particular body that is perceiving it.

There’s a haunting almost deja vu quality to this for me; it’s like the sensation before a sneeze, a sort of subtle body orgasm of perception.  It’s like the wave of memory just before it breaks into whiteness and recognition.  A tantric resting in the quivering is-ness of the moment without the release of realization, expression, limitation.  It’s the way a dog lifts her nose, eyes slitted into the light, huffing in with deep satisfaction the full body gratification of Being.

June.  Just her name is a song to me.  I knew a girl once whose name was June Rose, and that was always a kind of music to me, rich with luscious dewy optimism.  Wet grass against my legs.  Sun on my head.  Beetles in the blossoms, bottled milk in the box by the fence.  Everyone and everything alive in the wafting light of her lengthening days.

Open your window.  Take a deep breath.  There? Do you feel it?

 

 

West to East for East to West

Today begins my journey. I’m sitting in the Seattle-Tacoma airport waiting for a flight to Philadelphia. In roughly a week, I’ll recross the country by car. It’s always a bit dislocating to fly cross country. To be on one coast in the morning and the other by evening, crossing a number of states and all US time zones.

I’ve done it dozens of times, but today is special because I’m not going “home.” I’m not tearing myself away from the one and the place I love. I’m going back east to begin my full time relocation to Washington State.

It’s a poignant journey. Tonight my two nephews will pick me up, and it’ll be the last time for the foreseeable future that I’ll see one of them because he’s got other plans during our family get together this weekend. That event will be my mother’s 85th birthday. Tomorrow I’ll teach one last yoga class at the studio where I did my training and that has been a touchstone in my spiritual process. Saturday night an open house to say goodbye to friends. And next Wednesday one last sitting with my beloved teacher who midwifed my second birth awakening and the community we share of awakening folks.

By next Thursday I hope to set off across the width of Pennsylvania on the first leg of my cross-country odyssey. I plan to make posts along the way as I pass through and sometimes stop off at America’s notable and mundane way-stations along the northern edge of the Great Plains. I’ll be in touch.

Wind, River, Chainsaw: The Profound Nature of Space

I have always had a deep sensitivity to sound.  When I was teaching, side conversations among my students created such pressure in my head that it felt like it would implode. Once, living in South Jersey, I had a neighbor who kept beagles caged and chained in his backyard, and their barking so disturbed my sleep, my “peace,” that I took him to court twice. When I discovered meditation, then, sound became a longtime teacher.  The woodpecker that seemed to wait until I sat on my cushion to begin his relentless knocking.  The housemate whose shoes became like wooden blocks being dropped down the stairs.  The silverware drawer that clattered like a garbage truck in the kitchen. Whenever I sat to meditate, sound became the foreground, a magnetic pull on the myriad filings of my mind.

As I progressed in my practice, I had the good fortune to be introduced to Ajahn Chah, the great Thai Forest Master, by two teachers who were his former students and monks.  One time when he had traveled to England to give a teaching, there was a very loud band playing at a pub across the street.  In response to the agitation of those who had come to sit with him, he asked “is the noise bothering you, or are you bothering the noise?”  I came to understand that sound is a function of the ears, and noise is a function of the mind.  Once, walking with his young monks, they came upon a very large rock.  Ajahn Chah asked them, “is this rock heavy?”  To a person they agreed, “yes, it is very heavy!”  His response was “Ha!  Only if you try to lift it!”  This is a fairly common Buddhist teaching about the nature of perception.

It’s been some years since my Buddhist studies and practice although I still meditate most days first thing in the morning as part of a regular practice: puja, prayer, yoga and meditation.  Part of my journey into awakening as consciousness has been the continual differentiation between experience and Being.  I almost wrote “reality,” but what is reality but a perception?  Awakening as consciousness shift one’s relationship to every thing.  The dissolution of the boundaries of the self bring about the dissolution of the “other.”  It’s a realization of the complete subjectivity of being in a body.

Once I realized that there was no separation between “me,” and what “I perceived,” I knew inherently that everything was me.  Daniel Odier says “The self contains the void, the nonself, plenitude, the worlds, the Buddhists, the Sufis, the Christians, the Jews and the tantrikas!  The mystical experience is one; abolishing all dogmatic limitations, it is silent fusion, the annihilation of all disputing.”  This appears in a chapter on the way tantra differentiated itself from the “excessive” teachings of Buddhism of “understand[ing] the void with nonconsciousness.”

What the Buddhists called the “void,” a cold, emptiness, the trantrikas called space, which contains everything including the void.  Meditation, Odier goes on to say, “becom[s] almost ordinary . . . at the occurrence of any c0ntact with things and beings . . . because all of reality is transformed.  Our presence in the world becomes so open, intense, and refined that the sacred tremoring (awareness of consciousness) is continual.”

Moving to the country, here in the mountains where the population is around 6 people per square mile, my relationship to sound has blossomed as a direct result of this spaciousness that contains everything.  Sounds typical of my day are the rooster who starts his morning prayers these days around 4:30 and his hens beginning their daily song of laying–there’s a whole blog post on the sounds of laying hens!  The river comes into my awareness once Roosty rings his alarm.  When I go outside, the wind is moving in the aspen and cottonwood leaves.  There’s a rich layered texture of white sound. It permeates me and holds me in this tender time as I come more fully into conscious awareness after sleep, and I cherish it.

Yesterday, however, something happened.  Around 6:30 a persistent high pitched whine came in, gas motors revving and slowing, screaming and keening.  It was as if a dirt bike rally was going on in my mind, up and down the trails, long runs and short hops over hills to rev and return and go again and again and again. Almost instantly this scenario became embedded in my awareness.  It touched on years of sensitivity that have more or less healed but have left scar tissue that resonates at the slightest touch.   Still, my relationship to it felt different.  I both felt its irritation and also its essential there-ness.  I allowed this dichotomy to just be.

Later in the day, when my Beloved and I were driving down from our land to the road, we could see far away, across both the road and the river, a white truck parked at an angle where the well watered green of our friend’s pasture gave way to the natural brown hillside of the season and then the trees just beyond.  Immediately on seeing this I felt a shift in my relationship to the sound.  Magically, the dirt bikes dissolved back into the ether from which they had sprung and were replaced by this image of “work.”

This morning they started up again as usual just as I knelt before my altar to wave some incense around Ganesha and do the prayer that has been my regular daily practice for at least five years: please remove the obstacles from my path today by giving me the wisdom to see every difficulty, delay or setback as a gift from my exalted lord Shani for the removal of karma on this path to liberation.  It’s an old-school prayer from my days as a student and follower of Vedic astrology that examines the relationship between our desire for freedom from “obstacles” and their indisputable purpose of instruction.

Throughout my daily prayer of thanks to my yoga asanas and into my meditation they kept up their strange music.  While meditating I knew that they are no different from the sounds of the wind and the water.  Each is chewing away what is.

Thus, in this great unity, everything touches everything else.  A world, a movement of the body, where emotions pour out from the infinite, navigating through the infinite, end in the infinite, only to give rise to another movement.  Act and actor, subject and object, perception and perceiver are united. This is the realization of the Mahamudra.

Daniel Odier, Yoga Spandakarika