Monday, October 10, 2011
October 8, 2011
To the East of Klamath Falls a long, high wall of a mountain soars above the city. I’m going to take a break today from all the analyzing, reporting and politicking. In just five minutes of driving, I’m standing at the base of Hogback Mountain. The trail is a thin brown line straggling straight up a buttress to the main ridge. There are no trees here, or very few, so the whole stretch is visible.
In only a few hundred yards, the car is a tiny, shiny dot in the parking lot. My breath burns and my world contracts. The trail is so steep, I have to carefully place each step to avoid slipping. It’s like climbing stairs with risers that are sloping downwards, and are coated with slippery sand. The effort of concentration pays, though. Soon, I’m in a state so focused that I can feel the expanse of Pure Mind.
It doesn’t matter how you get there, whether from following the breath, or washing the dishes, or following every step with perfect concentration. The destination is the same: Bare Attention. This mind-state carries me up, through a country turned on its side, until I’m only a few feet from the ridge-top. But as I approach, I can tell it’s not the top. The wind is wrong, and the slope is increasing again. I step over the lip, and I’m greeted by another near-vertical stretch of trail, threading its way up to further height, the true ridge-top.
This is a false summit.
More steps of expansive awareness follow, un-countable steps, each the same as the last, each unique in its infinitely careful placement. And finally, the wind freshens, and the slope decreases. And then, I’m standing on a wind-swept ridge, a knife-edge balancing itself at the top of this massive hill. I’m not sure why, but every time I’ve ever approached summit, it seems quieter. Maybe it’s a sense of reverence, or maybe the unencumbered wind drowns out all other sound. It adds to the sense that you are in a far place.
Now I begin to work my way up the ridge, still climbing but much less steeply. The world expands with every footstep, now on both sides of the mountain. To the west, Klamath Falls is spread before me like a map. The enormous lake lies silently to the north, darkened by its own private fog bank. To the east, a sere landscape extends in rolling hills and spreading, cultivated bottomland. Creeks and lakes decorate the arid view.
I round some rock outcroppings, jutting high and sharp above me. These formations are called sentinels, as if they guarded the summit from discovery by people of my ilk. And then, almost suddenly, the wind freshens again, silence drapes me even more heavily, and I see the hill flatten out in all directions.
I am standing on top of Hogback Mountain. From the valley floor, at three thousand feet, I’ve climbed to six thousand, two hundred feet, gaining three thousand two hundred feet in two and a half miles.
On the summit, I am alone. The distance of the town far below me emphasizes the solitude here; I can look down and collectively see thousands of people, but I cannot see one individual person. Here there is huckleberry and sage, bare earth, and horned lizards that scramble from their sunny hotspots to hide from me.
And there is the wind, ever present, gentle but insistent. It whispers to me: of the mystery contained here, here for the taking. To the north, I can see the rim of Crater Lake, and, just barely, Mount Thielsen, a mountain I climbed many, many years ago. Out there is also Mt. McGloughlin, and the long, high ridge of the Sky Lakes. I can see in my mind’s eye, a thousand places up there, places where I slept and swam and despaired and exulted. I can see, in my mind’s eye, the me of twenty-one years ago, standing on windy ridge top out there, and looking across the gulf of open country, to the distant town of Klamath Falls and beyond.
The second half of the climb awaits, the most dangerous half. I turn and begin my descent, on trembling knees and aching feet. By the time I arrive at the rock cairns that mark my route down the buttress, every step is causing me pain, and concentrating on my foot placement is very, very difficult. At last I feel the familiar relief of stepping onto flat ground. My mind eases, and my attention relents. My old, busy world of thought-stream pushes back in, startling me in its suddenness.
But it’s changed, too. For hours afterward, the world looks different. Just as it would from a good long sitting meditation session. Every sense is sharpened, every joy more joyful. Back up the hill, the summit smiles down at me, a real place now.
Next morning, I look out the window of my hotel room, and I see the top. I can see the summit in my mind’s eye. I can see the me of yesterday, up there, looking down at the town.