Hiking up Cardigan - Mountain Zen

I went up a mountain

and came down in the dark. It sounds a lot more hard-core than it really was. Be that as it may, I had a good time, and took some pictures.

The beginning of the hike was, for me, pretty uncomfortable – I got there early and I sat by myself amid a slowly filling lot. Many of the hikers who arrived seem to know each other, assembled into groups and set off up the trail. I didn’t know anyone except the organizer of my group, and he wasn’t there yet. So I sat alone and waited. He did eventually arrive, a few minutes late. I wandered over to the largest hiking group where everyone knew who he was, but I felt better to learn that no one else was really well acquainted with the group generally. We set off about an hour before sunset.

I’ve been working toward two particular things simultaneously this year: improved physical health, and improved mental health. Toward the latter goal I have been trying to keep a regular meditation practice and I’m doing now a third deep dive into Buddhist philosophy. This time I’m focusing on Chan/Zen Buddhism. I’m hesitant to call it a “mental health” endeavor, since I’m not sure I’m coming at this from the angle of wanting my hand held and to be told everything will get better, which I think is why quite a lot of people start hunting around for a religion. Rather I am looking for something that can be both philosophically rigorous while having a practical component. I could just as well be building a cabin by a lake with a borrowed axe, in a sense. Or chopping wood, carrying water.

I’ve been trying to involve myself in the local Zen center, which sounds like an odd way to put it. But if you’ve ever tried to join a group as an adult without already having a friend in that group, you might understand the sentiment. I do feel like I’m just sort of barging in and involving myself unnecessarily. I’m trying to get over that inner awkwardness. I have no idea if there is outward awkwardness: I assume there is.

I ended up in the front of the pack with a med student and a high school student, just barely keeping up with their unconsciously brisk and easy pace up the mountain trail. They discussed mostly between themselves computer science, the vagaries of learning Java, web programming, all things as it turns out I’m interested in, but given my age can’t really have anything to say that would interest them. And so I drifted farther and farther behind, between them and the larger group of near-retirement age hikers below. There really wasn’t anyone in their 30s, or who had anything in common with me other than that we knew the priest, we pretended to know something about zen, and we were going to watch the sun set and the moon rise at the same time from the top of the mountain.

Fire Tower Approach

As for a test of my endurance, which I’ve been running and bicycling to improve, I found out I’m not really anything like “fit.” The hike took just short of an hour, and was only moderately difficult with some rock scrambles and only a few steeper inclines near the top. The beginning of the hike puts you in a trail that is well worn, with lots of proper stairs fashioned into the dirt and rocks and roots, and while it can be tiring it isn’t hard. There isn’t too much to see, with the forest thick on all sides. But after scrambling over some larger rocks maybe two-thirds up the mountain, the trees start to thin out and you begin to see some of the surrounding countryside. The views are spectacular and they only get more so when you reach the approach to the summit, a vast field of granite, scrubbed clean by a forest fire a century ago and the subsequent erosion, littered with cairns erected to help hikers in bad conditions, surmounted by a fire watch tower. I was frankly spent, but I got to sit on top of the mountain and watch the sun set and the moon rise. And prepare to hike down in the dark.

A view from the top

At the top most people sat in groups with their friends or families. I didn’t have anything like that there. I didn’t really know anyone, priest included, so I spent my time at the top like I spent my time on the hike, like I spent my time before the hike, alone among everyone, not young or old or outdoors-y or sociable enough to really fit with any of the folk there. And truth be told, it’s like that in the zendo, I being both the youngest and seemingly least appropriate visitor. I would say ‘member’ in so far as I keep showing up, but that I show up at all seems to be of the least consequence. It’s not that anyone is unwelcoming, far from it. But its also not really a social club, and further, I definitely don’t have much apparently in common with the other attendees. That is, of course, likely only in my own mind, and that’s a tricky thing to say when we’re talking about Zen. In a sense, going to the zendo, interacting with the people there, these things truly don’t matter, except in so far as I let them matter. In a way I am there for myself to learn about reality and perception through a form of practice rather than study. Being uncomfortable is in many ways only more fuel for that practice.

hazy moon

The strawberry moon, both by timing and by color through the haze elicited pleased oohs and ahs, and everyone spent their time staring at it through their phones and cameras. I didn’t vocalize, but I did also spend at least some of the experience via my phone screen, because that’s how life is lived best, so say we all. And then, group by group, hikers began the descent as darkness approached. Our Zen group gathered and began our descent, with two other groups behind us. But we went slow.

I had imagined hiking down a steep rocky trail in the dark would be something wild and a bit frightening, but really, with so many hikers, so many of whom had head lamps (I had my trusty flashlight in hand), it wasn’t any more trouble than going up. But it was slow. It was slow because one of our group was, I learned, very nearly blind, and was making the descent with the verbal aid of a small group of close friends. This was something I found absolutely astonishing, that he would have chosen to make this hike at all, to clamber down the rock scrambles by voice direction in the dark. I wondered about that kind of resolve. I wondered also about that kind of alone-ness, and yet closeness with his support team. Though perhaps I’m overstating it. This isn’t a modern documentary. Still, it was either brave or foolhardy to pursue doing what you love in spite of such a disability, and I admired it as both.

Dark descent

Because of our slow pace we stopped to let the other hiking groups through and we ended up being the last group on the trail, and our subgroup the last people down. I had a pleasant talk with the priest and learned that despite both our travels we started in the same town in Connecticut. The usual sort of weird coincidence that seems remarkable and yet happens continually to everyone.

As I mentioned, it’s a well delineated, heavily travelled trail, and we made it to the bottom in good order and not too much more time than it took to go up. I had begun to dawdle a bit, and it turned out I was the last person off the mountain.