Climbing Yosemite Falls, Almost Twice

I arrive at the Yosemite National Park Backcountry Permits office at 1:30pm.  In my hand I hold a topographic map and a copy of Backpacker Magazine with an article about a 3-day hike.  I’m proud of myself for arriving early and being prepared as it allows me to judge the couple in front who are unprepared and haven’t figured out that rangers cannot recommend hikes.  When it’s my turn, I ask for options. He gives me one, then – almost under his breath – lists several others, which sound uninteresting.

“But have you seen the weather forecast,” he asks.

“Yes,” I reply, “it’s going to rain in two days.”

“Rain and snow – up to two feet,” he corrects.

“Snow? Two feet,” I look at him as though he is speaking Chinese.  It’s September and this is California.

“Yes,” he smiles.

I mentally catalog the items in my Jeep, finding no long underwear, no wool sweaters, no ear muffs.  In fact, the warmest things I have are my jeans, a thin sweatshirt and spring jacket.

“Are you sure it’s going to snow,” I ask.

“Yes,” he smiles again.  “Next.”

As I step back slightly dazed, another couple steps up, underprepared.  I leave the building just as he says “as a government employee I can’t recommend any . . . “

Half Dome in Clouds

Determined to get to the trail head early enough for an overnight, I speed through the park to find where ‘Mr. No Recommendation’ instructed me to leave my car.  Yosemite requires all food to be stored over night in bear-proof lockers, so I move my cooler, water, Oreos and dry goods out of my car into a metal case.  Although no one else locks their container, I pull out a Master Lock and clamp it closed – I would hate to return and find my food missing.  Next, I repack my backpack for an overnight.  Do I take the laptop or leave it in the car?  Take it; again, would hate it to be missing when I return.  By the time I get to the shuttle stop, which will take me to the trail head, it’s 3:30pm. I can still hike for four hours – should be enough time to reach the camp site, which is two miles in.

The shuttle is painfully slow and the driver cheerfully narrates each section, deer, tree and grain of sand along the way.  People, happy and talkative, get on and off the bus.  Several comment, “Wow!  That’s a big pack.”  “Yeah,” I grumble at them.  At 4:30pm the bus comes to a stop at Campground Four.  I ask about the trailhead, to which the driver responds, “Cross the street and parking lot.  You’ll see a campground, veer to the right.  Then just go up.”  “Then go up,” I ask with a scrunched look on my face.  “Yes,” she smiles, closing the shuttle doors.  The shuttle pull away and I follow her instructions.

Timeline of Events
4:40pm: arrive at trailhead
4:50pm: breathe heavy
4:55pm: sweat profusely
4:57pm: stop, grab knees, catch breath
5:01pm: pass sign – “Entering Yosemite Wilderness.  Hike at your own risk”
5:05pm: stop, grab knees, catch breath, determine signal strength of cell phone
5:10pm: call National Park Service to understand lodging options
5:12pm: descend 75 feet to shuttle stop
6:00pm: unlock car, remove food from bear locker
6:20pm: check into Curry Village
8:00pm: enjoy fresh baked pizza and 7Up

Yosemite Falls – First Light

The next morning I’m awaken at 5am by people in the next tent.  Half asleep, I decide to make the Upper Yosemite Falls hike, the first section of the overnight hike I was supposed to take.  I reach the trailhead, by car, in no time and start the hike by 6am with a headlamp to light my way.  The switchbacks are killer.  I am sweating and breathing hard in no time, but with daylight coming and a lighter pack on my back, it’s manageable.

I rise quickly above the valley floor and witness amazing views of Half Dome and Yosemite Valley.  Switchback after switchback means I feel like a zipper going up the mountain.  Reaching the lookout at mile one, I encounter another hiker – the first – who passes me.  “Now the real climbing starts,” he says as we wave goodbye.  “Real climbing,” I question under my breath while cursing him for being the bearer of bad news.

And he’s right – as the Falls come into view, the trail gets steeper.  It’s almost comical to observe my mind while heading uphill. It runs through all the things I could be doing right now: sleeping, eating, having sex.  It says I’m too old, can’t make it to the top anyway, and should turn back now.  Breakfast – no, pancakes – sound marvelous . . . I’m sure I can find some nearby . . . if I just turn around.  I choose not to listen, but instead push onward, upward.

The next level of incline is worse than the one below.  Now, my mind is just getting in the way, so to shut it up, I employ the ‘counting method’ of climbing: each 100 steps means I get to take a short breath break.  I do this over and over, telling my head to “shut up!” many times over the course of the hike.

Arriving at the top of Yosemite Falls is breathtaking and well worth the internal battle of wits.  A smooth, grey granite deck drops off 2425 feet to the valley floor below.  A staircase – protected by a rusty banister drilled into the rock – leads to the outlook.  Looking over I experience slight vertigo.  Trees cling dearly to the face of the mountain.  Wind whips from all directions.

Matt’s Leap of Faith

Climbing a short distance back from the overlook, I find two deep dark pools fed by a river and smaller waterfall.  I make my way down to the base of these falls, snap a few pictures, and decide I haven’t lived until I jump in.  They’re protected – from going over Yosemite Falls – by a few hundred feet of river and rock.  Stripping off my clothes, I leap.  “Waahoo!” I yell, hearing an echo as my flesh hits the near freezing lagoon.  The water is bitter and, unlike my other recent naked dips, so is the air.  I towel off and shiver while eating a lunch of nuts and dried cranberries.

The second hiker I encounter that day – a 24 year old dude from New Jersey – asks about the water.  “It’s awesome,” I say, “Haven’t lived until you jump in!”  He catapults himself from a higher elevation.  I snap a few pictures of his death leap.  He survives.

I sit at the top of the falls for a some time contemplating my accomplishment.  I realize a few things: First, that my body performs better than expected sometimes, even though we have been through hell and back.  Second, my mind gives up too easy and would rather be on vacation.  Third, my soul is ablaze with love and expansion in nature.  I decide it better to listen to my soul more often as I make my way down the mountain.

Mammoth Snow

After brief consideration of lodging options – there is space available at the base of the Falls in Campground Four for $6 – I exit Yosemite via Tioga pass.  That night, I sleep soundly in a Comfort Suites in Mammoth Lakes as two feet of snow fall on the park and surrounding area.


Dia de los Muertos

“It’s a San Francisco tradition, you really must go,” a friend says while talking about the Dia de los Muertos.  To be honest, I have only fuzzy recollection about the significance of the celebration.  A quick internet search reminds me: it’s about honoring ancestors and the recently deceased.  Given my study of shamanism, I’m excited to experience this cortege.

Face in the Crowd

It takes place in the Mission – the vibrant latin neighborhood – which is sandwiched between downtown, Bernal Heights and the Castro.  In it’s day, the Mission was a scary place.  Not so much any more – experimental restaurants and sheik bars butt elbows with kitschy corner markets and cheap clothiers.  Colorful wall murals dominate the sides of the brick buildings and metal security gates.  Old theaters invoke an earlier era  with names like ‘The Latin,’ ‘The New Mission,’ ‘The Valencia.‘  Some are still abandoned and decrepit, others restored.  It’s a fitting location for such an affair.

On the streets, I encounter skeletons riding bikes, boarding busses, hailing cabs and walking next to me.  They are dressed to the nines in black and white funeral outfits, reminiscent of prom dresses and rented tuxedos.  They carry candles and sepia photos of loved ones. The veil between this reality and the spirit world is thin tonight.

Some of the 13 Standards

At the processional area, decorated banners shoot up into the night air, which is thick with incense smoke.  Hummingbird, snake, rat, wolf.  The drumbeat starts.  Rat tat tat tat, tat tat tat tat.  Rat tat tat tat, tat tat tat tat.  Dancers stomp; beads and bulbs around their ankles rain down on the pavement: Schwoo, schwoo, schwoo.  Schwoo, schwoo, schwoo.  Feathers and totems create a dizzying display of color in the sterile streetlight.  A circle this way, then that.  In unison, then separately invoking the spirit; they honor those who have come before.

Absorbing the intersection of art & movement, life & death, I realize that life today is truly a gift, given by our predecessors.  They imagined and built this world.  They passed family stories and culture down through the generations.  They had the vision of a better life for their children and descendants.  They made it possible for me – for everyone next to me – to walk down this street tonight.  They connect me to the beginning of time and the end.  Through them, I have life.

Dia de los Muertos Dancer

It’s a good opportunity to contemplate death.  It was only nineteen months ago that I attempted to take my life for the second time.  I almost succeeded, then spent eight days in a psychiatric ward followed by another rehab.  Upon reflection, I don’t think I really wanted to die, I just no longer wanted to live being who I was.  My attitude has changed . . . dramatically.  Today I choose to live fully and participate in the creation of a new dream for myself and the planet.  I no longer sit on the bench and watch the world go by.  I can think of no greater honor to my lineage than that.

The procession makes its way up 24th Street then turns onto Mission.  It’s more crowed and the pictures I take now have other people’s cameras in them.  The crowd makes its way towards 22nd.  I leave them there, heading the opposite way into the Castro, where my car and then a good night’s sleep awaits.  Before the drumbeat fades, I set the intention to honor my ancestors – not only on this day, but often.

Scoring P*$$y at Baker

It has been years since I have visited  Baker Beach – the famous clothing optional strand within the San Francisco city limits – and I am excited.  SF gets nice weather – the nicest, I think – in September when fog gives way to brief, but much needed, “Indian Summer.”  Mika, the dog I am sitting, is a nudist and she is equally excited to beach while her parents are out of town.  She and I climb into Dusty, who is now furry inside, and head to the oceanfront park inside what used to be the SF Presidio.

We find parking quickly, which is unusual on a warm weekend day, and make the short walk to the shore.  As we hit the sand, Mika overflows with excitement.  She looks at me, the beach, then back at me.  Seeming to beg “let me off this leash,” I unhook her from the chains of bondage around her neck.  She takes off running down the beach after a tennis ball – the back of her butt looks like a bunny hopping feverishly down the sand; it’s cute and comical at the same time.  “Beautiful dog,” one passerby comments.

Dog on Baker

Mika loves to play catch, but with a twist.  I throw the ball, she runs bunny-butt style down the beach and even into the oncoming surf; she chomps on it a few times, turns around to look at me, then drops the ball and walks away.  “Get your ball,” I shout, to which she continues walking the other way.  As I run up to grab the ball before it is forever lost to the unforgiving sea, she turns back around (as if she hasn’t been watching), takes the ball in her mouth and takes off running down the beach.  I wonder whose game we’re playing: mine or hers?  Another person notes: “nice dog! Corgi?”

Besides the nudists, a prominent feature of Baker Beach is the view of Golden Gate Bridge.  It looms large and magnificent to the north, just beyond the rocks where nudist pose and sun themselves.  Mika’s game of catch leads us forward in that direction.  We reach the clothing optional section and notice people of all shapes, ages and colors basking in the sun.  There is different energy about a naturalist beach.  Sunbathers seem friendly and uninterested in the standard of beauty displayed on the newsstand.  It’s refreshing.  In fact, I sometimes love to check out older men, imagining for a moment what I will look like when I am eighty and naked.  I pray that I live long enough to see winkles cover my war-torn chassis and lines lay deep in the foundation of a laugh-filled face.

Looking up, I notice one man with a t-shirt, and nothing else, posing on the rocks.  He is next to fully-clothed Chinese tourists positioning themselves on the rocks with their children in front of the bridge.  They’ll rotate with one another so everyone has a chance to have their picture taken.  Naked T-shirt Man (NTM) rotates with Completely Nude Guy (CNG) as they guard and protect their claim to this area.  I snap a few pictures of the bridge, tourists and nudists.

It is not long before I am surround by a small gang or what I surmise are teenage women, maybe just barely legal or even college age (it’s hard to tell from this side of forty).  They are talking about Mika as if I am not there, which is a bit strange, in the worse form of Valley Girl dialect I have heard yet.

Girl #1: “Oh, he’s [sic] so cute, I wonder what his name is?”

Girl #2: “I wonder if he’s friendly.”

Girl #3: “Oh my gawd, I want that dawg.”

Girl #2: “Totally, I want that dawg.”

They continue this banter for a short time.  Mika ignores them and plays in the surf.  “Good dog,” I think to myself.  Finally, the threesome discuss something else – shopping, I think.

A few moments pass and the banter from the gaggle starts again.  “Man, I wish I had brought the pot that I left at home for us to smoke.”  One of the girls says this loud enough for me, and the two men (NTM & CNG) on the opposite rocks, to hear.   Some sort of San Francisco Gen Y mating call?  Another moment passes and their conversation continues, again as if I am not there:

Girl #1: “he’s kind of cute.”

Girl #2: “you mean thaaaat one in the hat?”  (I scan and I’m the only dude in visual distance wearing a hat)

Girl #1: “uh, yeah”

Girl #3: “I’d tap that.”

Girl # 1 and #2 together: “yeah, I’d definitely tap that.”

Baker in Full View

Suddenly, I think I know how women feel when walking past a group of cat-calling construction workers.  I am being objectified, right here on the nude beach in San Fran.  I can’t believe what I am hearing!

Just as the future ladies of the night are about to (gasp) ask me a direct question, a wave douses Mika.  She runs up onto the beach and shakes it off.  I laugh and the girls do too.  Saved by a wave.  I walk up to get Mika.  Glancing up at the CNG on the rocks, I notice he is completely shaved down under.  I wonder to myself why guys do that – it leads to nothing but pimples and uncharacteristic scratching for me.  He nods (and I swear winks) at me knowingly and then looks at the girls.  I shudder, then collect my Corgi companion to we make our way back down the beach to the safety of Dusty.  “Pretty dog” someone shouts as we exit the beach.

Fibitz Photo Friday

Each week, I plan to share one favorite photo – taken by The Fibitz – with you, my generous readers (ok, family and friends).   I hope you enjoy!  This week’s photo: “Fabulous Jesus.”  Walking around the San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission in Carmel, California, I was struck by the Farrah Fawcett style hair on this likeness.  He greets visitors as the enter and leave the mission.

I'm Fabulous!

Soaking Oysters at the Kabuki


I arrive back in San Francisco after a couple weeks down the coast to house and dog sit for friends who are taking their daughter to Hawaii.  “Remember, Mika [the Corgi] is our first born,” they announce on the way out the door as a reminder to stay in check while ‘the cats’ are away.  The dog looks at me, I look at her, then she heads over to her favorite spot on the dining room floor to take a nap.  I think we’ll get along brilliantly!

I’ve decided to take advantage of San Francisco while I am here for the next few weeks.  I have a bunch of adventures scheduled – at least mentally – to fill the “unstructured” time (as my friend calls it).  Day one: Japantown for lunch followed by a soak in the Kabuki Hot Springs.  I have a tattoo appointment the following day, so this will be my last chance to soak or swim for the next couple weeks while my ink heals.  After walking the dog around the block a few times, I head out of the fog to Japan Center.

Boo / ブーイング

My First stop is the newly opened Daiso, which, from the looks of it, is Japan’s version of the 99 cent store.  I decide to ‘just browse’ and take a few pictures of the packaging, which is in Japanese and English.  The Halloween costumes are my favorite: witch hats, pumpkin streamers and fake noses are displayed in neat, orderly rows.  Next to them are the plastic boxes and mesh bags, which I simply must have to organize myself.  After an hour dreaming of the ways I will package my life in the rows of cute, practical plastic gadgets, I purchase nearly $19 of the junk and some Halloween decorations for my friends’ daughter.  I guess it’s how those stores get you!

I lunch at what appears to be a popular sushi restaurant where small wooden boats float around a water fed conveyer belt displaying sushi of various types and prices: eel hand roll $2.95, california roll $1.75, clam $3.95, spicy tuna $1.95, sea urchin $5.25.  Initially, I grab items I trust: eel, tuna and seaweed salad.  Then I spy two huge oysters coming around on a $3.75 plate.  I grab them thinking I have scored.  Bringing the almost hand-sized shell up to my lips, I pause momentarily breathing in the briny essence of the bivalve.  Tossing it back like a shot of Jaegermeister, I catch it with my tongue and bite it in half.  Creamy filling explodes in my mouth and overwhelms my senses.  Normally, I chew an oyster once, twice tops, and swallow.  This one is so huge, I chomp seven or eight times before letting it slide down my throat.  I gag, but prevail.

Sushi Floats

Not wanting the sushi chef to see me choke, I decide it’s best to finish this plate quickly.  Without pausing, I down the second oyster, this time attempting to swallow it whole.  It gets stuck half way down – too big to swallow – so I spit it back up.  Slimy flesh hits my front teeth and sits there momentarily.  I imagine the oyster no longer wants to go down, having witnessed what happened to its mate.  I gag; the oyster persists.  I imagine if it had arms it would try to pry my mouth open and leap to the table.  Looking around with this fistful of flesh in my mouth I’m desperate, but then devise the perfect plan: chew like mad and follow the creamy bottom feeder with a spat of green paste and flying fish eggs.  I do this, hoping, no . . . . praying, that the small salty roe will wash away the taste of sea sludge.  It does the trick, but the wasabi is hot and my nostrils are now on fire.  I toss back some hot green tea and ask for the check.  Walking through the center, I wish I could scrape the taste of dead oyster off the roof of my mouth.

I don’t know if it’s advised to sit in a hot tub full of naked men after one has eaten oysters, but I wouldn’t have listened anyway.  The Kabuki Hot Springs is a Japanese style bath house complete with showers, hot tub, cold plunge, dry and wet saunas and relaxing areas.  The establishment provides lemon and cucumber water and slices of apple during your stay and an assortment of body products for post-soak.  Every other day, one gender is allowed clothing-optional access to the facility.  The exception is Tuesday, when everyone is invited, but bathing suits are required.

Before entering, I imagine that I will encounter elderly Japanese businessmen and maybe a Buddhist monk or two.   Like Tassajara, I am surprised by the amount of, um, white guys.  I walk in and plunge into the warm soak.  My plan is this: hot tub, cold plunge, steam sauna, rest, repeat.  After a few moments I notice the men seem to fall broadly into two categories: squinters or cruisers.  Squinters peek; cruisers gawk.  Straight or gay, men do check each other out and, I think, are interested to see what other guys have for, uh, equipment.  It’s one of the reasons we dudes think we have inadequate tools; because we see one or two in the showers who are “show-ers.”

Japantown Art

I feel a certain sexual energy in the place that is hard to describe.  Maybe the oysters are kicking in like ecstasy tabs.  If the music were pumping disco or dance, instead of Buddha lounge, I might pop into the steam room for a little wank.  There is enough room for Bette Midler to perform if she chose to resurrect her bathhouse singing career.  In light of the fact that a businessman or monk might walk in one day, the management keeps the place above board.  Attendants keep close watch on the sauna and tubs to ensure a hanky-panky-free environ.  But there are still looks, glances and stares.

I leave the Kabuki slightly frustrated – damn those briny mollusks – but, find solace in Mika when I arrive home.  She is a bundle of love.  It’s really all I want right now – some unconditional affection.  We play hide and seek where I throw a ball then take off to another part of the house to hide behind a door or piece of furniture.  She seeks, all the while smiling with her tongue hanging to one side.   When she finds me – and she gets quite good at this – she barks madly and shakes her furry, tail-less butt.  We do this over and over . . . and over.

Sitting Zazen at the Tassajara Hot Springs

“We don’t have much availability because that is the week we close for the season” the woman on the other side of the phone says. “Oh, but I can offer you a shared cabin, meaning you will be housed with someone, for $129 a night with meals included.” “I’ll take it,” I reply. I have vague childhood memories of the Tassajara Zen Buddhist Retreat Center in the middle of the Los Padres National Forrest, not far from Carmel Valley. My stepmother and father would take my stepbrother and I there in the summer to swim naked in the river and slip down the natural rock slide and waterfall.

Dusty Road to Tassajara

I spend the night in Jamesburg with close friends – Abbe, Fred, Jenny and Billy – before I start my climb (and decent) to Tassajara. It’s only 16 miles from there, but the road is unpaved, dry, dusty and hot with steep inclines and declines. “Don’t be a dumb ass and ride your brakes all the way down,” Abbe says as I wave goodbye, “all you smell is burning brakes.” And it’s true; about 30 minutes in I can smell other cars‘ flaming drums. It’s not pleasant. Dusty (my Jeep) takes the journey in stride.

Dirt is everywhere in Tassajara. By the time I arrive at the center, I can feel it in the back of my throat and down my sinuses. “You’ll be in cabin 9. Can’t miss it,” says the young, distracted blonde behind the counter. I was half expecting to find Japanese monks, but the center appears to be run mostly by, uh, white folks. My cabin is nice, on the stark side, and something I would expect at a monastery. No one else in the room, so I grab the better futon, close to the door and away from the toilet, which is separated in the room by a piece of cloth. I grab my bathing suit, camera and towel and practically skip down the path towards the Narrows and my vague childhood memory.

One of Many Waterfalls on the River

I make it to the swimming hole and it is mostly as I remember. “They’re slippery,” a naked man calls out to me as I gingerly approach the river. “Thanks” I shoot back. Walking to the head of the waterfall I glance down. It is not quite as tall as I remember – though I must have been smaller when I was last here. “Can I jump,” I ask the two naked women lounging on the opposite rocks. “Yes! go for it,” they encourage. Stripping off my clothes and tossing the bathing suit aside, I take the plunge. It is nearly 100 degrees outside and the cool river feels amazing. I take a couple more leaps to get the dust out from behind my tongue and then position my body in the sun, imagining for a moment I am lizard.

Time passes quickly, or slowly, when you have no clock and no watch to check. Not only are there no clocks, but only minimal solar generated electricity on the property. At night, kerosene lamps light the walkway. My cell phone doesn’t get signal, so I turn it off and leave it in the room hidden under the futon in case someone come prowling for easy steals. I won’t touch it again until I climb back into the car for the return trip. This gives me a certain sense of satisfaction since I can now easily leave my cell phone alone. Progress!

Tassajara at Night

The next morning, I get up with the monks . . . well, ok, I get up at 5:30 when the monks are signally everyone to morning zazen. I decide to take the plunge and sit with the Buddhists – they “sit” to release attachment to thoughts and mind, which I could use a bit of. At 5:40, half asleep, I stumble into the temple gripping my large Maglite flashlight (I fear leaving it outside with my shoes that someone might take it). The traffic cop at the front of the temple asks: “cushion or chair?” “Chair,” I respond. Smiling, she points to one in the corner of the room, facing the wall. I am tempted to turn it around, but notice that everyone sits facing the wall. Now I question what I have gotten myself into; will I have to stare at a blank wall for the next hour?

As people file in, I crane my neck to see if there is anyone I recognize (from where, I have no idea). My mind is incredibly active at this hour and starts jabbering to itself about this that and the other thing. At least in church you have the backs of people’s heads at which to stare. Why do they make us face at the wall? Thank god there are other people in chairs – I am not the only one. Tomorrow I will take a cushion, instead of this training stool, it will be a challenge and I’m up to a challenge. I wonder what Buddhist sex is like?

Other people, many in plain black robes, file into the room quietly and sit on stark black cushions. They fidget with their drapery and position themselves like princes and princesses at a reception. Next there is the sounds of gongs, followed by a series of bells. We’ve begun! Sit for twenty five minutes, then a five minute minute break – I am thinking tea and cookies – followed by another twenty five minutes of sitting. I can do this!

Sitting in my chair, I suddenly feel uncomfortable. I shift my weight from one butt cheek to the other. Then my throat becomes dry and I curse myself for forgetting my stainless steel water bottle in the room as I stumbled out. I cough. Someone else sneezes, I assume in sympathy, so I don’t feel so bad. People continue to arrive; I judge them. Someone else shifts. I get bored examining the paint and texture of the wall, so close my eyes and start to mull over the things I will do today: hot tub, breakfast, chitchat with the other guests, maybe find a monk and ask him the meaning of happiness . . . or life for that matter . . . then a hike, followed by naked dip in the river . . .

As I run through my agenda, I congratulate myself for doing so well in morning zazen. I will definitely be ready to sit on a zafu tomorrow, like the robes ones next to me. Then, the gong rings, followed by a bell. I squint one of my eyes open and notice that the room has gone completely quiet and still. We are just now starting! Those I had judged so harshly just a few moments ago weren’t late – I was early. I hate being early. Damn this place with no clocks! At the break our only reward is shifting. No one gets up, there are no cookies or tea. The bells and bowls sing again. I go back to listening to the incessant chatter in my head wondering if it will ever shut up.

By the time the finishing bell rings I am elated – I feel like I am being let out of detention. I stand up and afraid that someone is going to (gasp) say something to me, I make quick exit through the door where I see several of the black-robed-ones going. Just as I exit and the door closes, I hear “you’re welcome to stay.” I grasp my Maglight close and pull on my shoes. The room starts chanting; Buddhists chant their lineage back 1000 years. I was in such a hurry to depart that I miss the second – maybe more entertaining – part of the service. I berate myself for ten seconds, then walk back to my cabin to nap before taking a morning zazen in the hot sulfur springs.

Hiking in Tassajara

I accomplish most of the other items on my mental checklist that I organized while sitting, with the exception of the meaning of life bit. That night, dinner is truly “Tassajara.” I am at a table with a lesbian therapist on my left, a nurse-turned-yoga instructor on my right, a Hollywood marketing director, a lawyer and a retired man who never reveals what he does for work across the table. It sounds like the start of a joke, but the conversation is one that I truly enjoy: intellectual and offbeat.

The next morning as a monk walks through the cabin area where I sleep banging a piece of wood to wake people up, I am determined to sit zazen on a zafu. I roll over and fall back asleep, comfortable that my intention, not realized, is good enough for today. I feel no guilt, which is tremendous progress and I am certain the Dali Lama would be proud.

The Oak Worm Perspective

I ride my bike up to the Blue Sky Lodge pool, which is located in another building a couple streets over from where my mother and I are staying.  My goal: a quick dip in the pool and then relax in the hot tub.  It is a beautiful sunny summer day, although the fog is visible a few miles down the valley.  In an hour or so the sky will go from California blue to grey and white, and the temperature will drop dramatically.  Northern California is locked in a coastal battle between fog and sun.  Who wins each day is sometimes a coin toss, but the fog usually envelopes the valley by evening.

By the pool it looks like a few oak trees are dying; leaves shredded to their veins, they look sick.  I see thousands of webs in one tree and assume spiders have moved in on the dead branches.  The webs are, in a strange way, beautiful: they sparkle in the sun and shimmer in the wind.  After a dip in the salt-water pool, I dash over to the jacuzzi.  Sinking into the warm embrace of bubbles, my mind starts to chatter as it normally does.  I breathe, then notice one caterpillar suspended from a tree on a thin strand of silk.  It almost reaches the deck surrounding the hot tub.  I watch for several moments as the worm twists and turns like a trapeze artist in the light summer breeze.  It swings over the hot tub deck, then over the water and back.

Looking around I see hundreds, maybe thousands, of worms – oak worms – in and around the trees. They have reached infestation levels and are eating the California stock down to nubs.  Their silk strands attach everywhere and groups clump together in odd sexual cluster fucks.   There are no spiders, only worms.  Most trees will survive this onslaught, but it is not pretty to watch.

Oak Worm

I continue to observe the small worm as it contorts itself in a maddening dance above life (the deck) and certain death (the caldron of water in which I rest).  Of course, the worm cannot understand his situation – from his perspective, he cannot tell where he is.  He (or she) is simply driven by a primal urge to leave the tree above and find something (a mate? more food?) below.  How many times have I felt like that worm?  Barely hanging onto a thin strand of transparent silk  that leads up to a world I can no longer see while the wind and world has its way with me.

Sitting in the tub, my perspective is different, larger.  I can see the tree that is full of worms, the bubbling blueish water where dead brown specs float, and the deck where caterpillars inch away.  Not only can I see the situation, but with a slight nudge, I could move the bug one direction, towards life, or the other, towards death.  I wonder to myself if my perspective of the worm is similar to the one that god or the spirits have of us: able to see the bigger picture that we cannot given our limited sight.

I wont say what I do for the worm (if anything).  But it gives me a lot to think about, especially when I watch someone close to me go through tough times.  As I leave the pool and hot tub, I feel a certain amount of camaraderie with that tiny bug who has left the tree for adventures into the unknown.  From my perspective, whether he survives or not, it is well worth the journey!