The Serenity of Redwoods: Observations from My First Backpacking Trip

I didn’t even have an inkling that I could walk over 30 miles in just three days. While backpacking in Pescadero Creek County Park, I tested my body, mind and spirit among the Redwood giants and found I was fit for the trail. In addition to experiencing some new levels of self-awareness ranging from the subtle to the sublime, l learned to trust my heart and mind to keep me strong when walking in the wilderness—both literally and figuratively. Although I’ve known for a few years that an altered state of consciousness happens to people who go off into nature (I’ve witnessed my partner return battered yet transformed from his wilderness walks in solitude) until I ventured into this world for myself, I could not fathom the deep and lasting peace it can bring. This new self-knowing, of pushing my flesh with my heart and mind, is enough to hook me for life.

Rare Flower

Redwoods at Pescadero Creek

Cresting Brook Trail

Walking in northern California has its many unique treasures, the greatest of which is easily the Redwood giants. To stand beneath one looking into the sky while never seeing the its highest branches reminds us to respect everything. One feels oneself to be small and sacred beside their enormity. Their canopy creates a perpetual twilight of cool air and many-hued greens that sustains countless life forms. To hug one is to be held in God’s hand. In contrast to their majesty, I saw that people  can be giants as well, clumsy and careless creatures whose every footfall could easily crush millipedes, slugs and wild flowers. One begins to guard every step with the care and sensitivity of reverent steward.

“This is precious. I must guard this life.” I constantly verbalized until my body harmonized with the environment and I felt that there was not an other and myself, but only that the snakes and the coyotes and the flowers were an extension of myself and the woods, each reaching into a purposeful existence by fulfilling our roles, I no longer worried and a silence embraced me from within.Nothing reduces stress like walking in fresh air for long stretches in silence. Petty concerns fell away with each mile as the sounds of my own heart filled my head. My breath became a gauge for my own attentiveness to my body’s rhythm. The usual running dialogue of my life became a monologue of endurance: “I can. I know I can. One more step. Just one more.” My shadow ceased to exist. My song was that of the nearest bird who I tried to reassure with my broken words that we would pass through quickly. In the creek, my red-hot feet smoldered as Hal’s big fish flipped out a performance for his eyes only. I discovered tiny mollusk that mimic rock clusters and spiders that don’t feel the need to hide and scurry. The air was so crisp and fresh that I didn’t want to wear layers and interfere with the physical sensations of being fully alive. Through all of this I found contentment in my body, aching though it was.

Pomponio Trail

Fish in Tarwater Creek
Water is the ultimate equalizer. We take so much for granted with our hot showers and bottled water. Purifying water is a humbling process. We take it for granted that water is a public service. We open the faucet a beautiful clear water flows out endlessly. We even have the audacity to buy water in bottles. But pulling non-potable water from a creek teaches humility. Suddenly I was in the company of millions of women around the world who have to haul drinking water.

Tarwater Creek

In truth, I did not do the work of carrying the water. My gracious host hauled it up the steep embankment while I rested. He showed me how to pump it through a filter. The water was made drinkable in minutes, which is an amazing luxury. The second method is to boil the water, which only kills bacteria but leaves particles. Tarwater Creek is so named because of the deep well of petroleum that spirals into the creek, floating on the water’s surface where it thins out into a film of residue. The taste of this petroleum water is unpleasant. This reminds me of all the people and eco-systems that have been impacted by oil spills and contaminated water. Water is life. Everything works better when it’s fresh and clean. Knowing that I would leave little trace of myself was also a point of pride.

As a partial introvert, I know I need space, solitude and time away from people to feel clear, healthy and at my best. What I understand better after my trip is that the quality of that time, space and solitude matters. Nature can recharge my spirit like no other source. A deep connection to nature can yield a deeper connection to oneself. There’s no posing or pretending or self-consciousness in the woods. You just are. It’s the ultimate meditation. You don’t have to try, and there you are going step by step, surviving each moment, triumphing over yourself, over your doubtful inner critic. My internal climate cooled with every step in the lower canopy of the environment.

Endurance is a battle of the mind and spirit pushing to overcome physical limitations. When one punches through the layers of fear and pain, a clarity takes hold. I’ve heard many athletes speak about this experience. Even though I don’t think this was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, nor was it the greatest pain I’ve endured, with every step we climbed along the steep gulch, my confidence grew. The feeling of mastering myself was a powerful motivator. I haven’t felt my shoulders that relaxed in a decade. I’m hungry for more. I’m eager to invite friends to experience the outdoors in this way. In nature, I don’t need to be or do anything special. I only need to walk my walk.

Angelina Jolie and the Solution to Cancer

There are so many ways that Angelina Jolie’s story touches my heart and disturbs my mind. Her choices to have a double mastectomy and to publicly disclose it are surprising for different reasons. Before reading about her choice on several different media sources, I defended her, thinking that she must have done this because she watched her mother die. In part that is true, though her mother died of ovarian cancer not breast cancer. I can understand her wanting to take steps to care for herself. As I’m not a doctor, I’m not here to judge her on her very personal decision. I do, however, think that her identity as a famous actor, her social status and class do too much harm to the large percentage of women living in the United States without the amazing healthcare access that Angelina Jolie can easily afford.

How many women who you know personally can afford to convalesce for three months for reconstructive surgery? How many will have insurance and co-pay coverage for an elective double-mastectomy? How many women do you know who feel confident that they’re getting good care from their doctors and that they’ll walk away with “a few tiny scars” but looking good as new? How many women do you know who have the resource to have the needs of their children met while all this is going on?

Sadly, I don’t know any.

That is what frightens me about the situation. Women are undergoing mammograms when they could have MRIs. Ultimately, it comes down to economics. Again, this is a financial situation more than a health issue. Women like Jolie get to make choices. Therefore, when we’re having this discussion, it has to include issues of socioeconomic class. I don’t think Mrs. Jolie has a problem making her co-pays, taking time off from work to heal or a difficult choice regarding elective surgery. According to Time Magazine, the test to identify the cancer gene costs about $600. I’m guessing that Kaiser and basic insurance providers don’t cover it.

*I’m amending this post in order to include some relevant information revealed by US Supreme Court’s June 2013decision to not allow patent rights for gene discovery. I applaud their decision as it gives normal mortals the chance to get help with preventative care. Furthermore, the decision revealed that the patent holder, of the so-called breast cancer genes BRCA 1 and BRCA 2, Myriad Genetics, is able to greatly profit from having sole access to the research and medical treatment associated with the genes. According the San Francisco Chronicle, Myriad’s diagnostic test to identify the cancer genes cost $3,000. That’s even more than my original estimate and that of Time Magazine. So now we get to wait and see whether tests such as Myriad’s will be made available to all patients, regardless of their economic status.

While I respect her choice, this discussion would be more realistic if she talked about the total expense. What kind of spiritual and psychological counseling did she undergo? Did she have to turn down a movie part, or did she postpone a potential role? What part of her personal wealth did she invest in her health? Did her healthcare choice lead to the endangerment of her home ownership, employment status or other hardship?

Most likely, Angelina Jolie can afford to ignore the issue of money; the rest of us cannot. For most of us, the solution to cancer is not preventive surgery with full reconstructive surgery. Most of my students can’t afford basic dental or medical care. I know that even the diagnostic tests that Angelina Jolie had would be prohibitive for them. I was relieved to hear that Brad Pitt supported his wife’s choice and that in a recent interview he acknowledged that the costs are largely prohibitive for most women though they shouldn’t be. So, yes, let’s talk about health, and please, let’s also talk about the costs.