Kearsarge Pass

Kearsarge Pass selfie

Selfie, coming up Kearsarge Pass from the west.

Extremely good news.

“Chaos should be regarded as extremely good news” – Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

I was in Albuquerque in April to run Cedro Peak 50K on my birthday. Ken Gordon said “You’re running High Lonesome!” Ken is running it too. I needed a reminder, though. What is High Lonesome? Apparently I’d put myself on the waitlist for this small, new 100 mile race in the Sawatch Mountains of Colorado. I was #30 on the list. The race only starts 100 runners. It seemed highly unlikely to me that I would get in.

Some months later it seem less unlikely. The list had churned, a lot. And suddenly, I was in.

I am a sea level guy. I struggle with rain. High Lonesome has its lowest point at 8,000 feet, and the first climb tops 13,000. Summer monsoon thunderstorms were almost guaranteed.

I am also an Aspie. Unlike Courtney Dauwalter, who just puts on her giant shorts and runs, apparently without much of a plan except to deal with whatever comes up, I struggle when things don’t go exactly as planned, and segueing to plan B is a challenge I am not always up to. Things never go as planned in a 100 mile race, especially one in the mountains of Colorado during monsoon season. They never go as planned in life, either, so this is good practice.

The Three Commitments.

“Life is like stepping into a boat that is about to sail out to sea and sink” – Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition the Three Vows, or Three Commitments, are three methods for “embracing the chaotic, unstable, dynamic, challenging nature of our situation as a path to awakening,” Pema Chodron writes. Immediately in front of me on the path is High Lonesome 100. I reckon these methods will help me with that, too.

Unlike the Eightfold Path and the various sets of Buddhist precepts, the Three Commitments must be done in order. The first is committing to not cause harm. The second is committing to take care of one another. The third is committing to embrace the world as it is.

It’s tempting to try to rush ahead to the third commitment. After all, embracing the world as it is is pretty much the finish line; you are well on your way to awakening when you can do this.

The first commitment seems pretty straightforward, too, if you are marginally ethical and moral, especially because we humans are often inclined to grandiosity in one direction or another (often both), and this is an easy commitment to look at in epic terms: “I shalt not kill. Okay. That’s easy. I’m not murderous.” “I shalt not steal. Easy enough, I guess, as long as I am allowed to play a bit with business expenses come tax time…” I don’t covet my neighbor’s wife, and even if I did, nobody would know, so no harm would ever come of it, except, maybe, to me, since this covetousness might keep me from fully embracing my own relationships. Even in epicness, we hedge.

Looking up at Kearsarge Pass, just before a storm

Looking up at Kearsarge Pass, just before a storm.

Right Speech.

When I pull in to an aid station during a race, I try to be courteous and grateful and show my appreciation for the volunteers’ efforts to help me, and all the runners, through the race. If they ask me “How are you doing?” my answer is almost always “I’m doing great! Thank you for asking, and thank you for all the work you are doing!” With my crew, however, I am usually a little more candid, and often angry with frustration at whatever has not gone according to plan: “This sucks. My feet are killing me. I’m way fucking off pace. I don’t know why I do this shit.” And once I’ve delivered that blast of negativity, it’s out there in the world, and it seems to have become much more real. I’ve derailed a few of my races this way.

Consequently, I have decided that I do better without a crew.

It is only recently that it’s occurred to me that there is another way. Maybe, just maybe, instead of being candid, bitter, angry when talking to my crew, I could try to treat them with the same gratitude and appreciation I strive for with the aid station volunteers. After all, my crew, which these past few years pretty much consists of Andrea, are also volunteers, and volunteering to crew me is a pretty thankless job. Maybe instead of saying the words that make me and them feel like shit, I should say the words that make us all feel better, and I know what words those are because I always feel a little better after telling the aid station folks how great I feel.

Right speech, it turns out, is an important part of doing no harm. In fact, it’s a more important part, for me, than not killing or stealing or coveting my neighbor’s wife because I don’t do those other things. I do speak unskillfully with alarming regularity.

As luck would have it, the Buddha gave some pretty specific directions regarding right speech: abstinence from false speech, malicious speech, and idle chatter. Avoid speaking in a hostile, angry way, don’t lie, gossip, or use speech to promote discord. Instead, tell the truth, but make sure you say it in a kind, gentle way that promotes harmony, and try to be mindful that what you are saying is useful and purposeful.

That’s a lot of instruction, and it’s going to take a lot of work just to remember it, never mind actually putting it into practice. It is easy to recognize, though, that when your crew says, after past races, “I was afraid of what your mood would be when you came into the aid station”, you have not been practicing right speech. I’m not like Donald Trump. I believe that nobody on my crew should ever be afraid of me. It’s also easy to recognize that angry declarations like “This sucks, I am having a terrible time, I don’t think I want to finish this race even if I could, I’m done with racing” are not useful or purposeful and do only harm. So I think I will try to start there.

Maybe if I don’t say “This sucks”, it won’t, and if it does, it will suck alongside the wonder of being in such an awesome place, of being able to run in it, of being able to run at all, of being able to run and hike 100 miles, all at once, never mind all the other things for which to be grateful, like that the pesky Hep-C virus seems to be finally cleared from my body, or my friends, my family, my trusty sidekick Julian the Cat, and even all the mistakes I’ve made that somehow led me to this place. It has not been a straight line.

Looking south from Kearsarge Pass, Pothole Lake below.

Looking north from Kearsarge Pass, Pothole Lake below.

Kearsarge Pass.

Kearsarge Pass is my current happy place. I’ve been spending a lot of time there because it is beautiful, because I can get there in just a few hours, and from the trailhead in Onion Valley at 9,000 feet it’s four-and-a-half beautiful miles up to the pass, at nearly 12,000 feet, past lakes, waterfalls, through forests and then above tree line. I’ve also been spending a lot of time here because I am trying to get a little bit better adjusted to elevation, since I will be running a race with elevation between 8,000 and 13,000 feet in less than a week from now.

I’m also a little bit thrilled that I finally seem to be overcoming my crippling fear of heights – a genuine phobia in my case, that has, in the past, left me crouching on a trail trying to fend off a panic attack.

There were a series of little breakthroughs not that long ago. The first one was on a stretch of trail nearing the top of San Gorgonio Peak, 11,500 feet, the highest peak in Southern California. There is an exposed stretch cutting into a steep-but-not-too-steep slope of a generally rather round mountain. In the past, I would always turn away at these stretches in panic, and then beat myself up for it after. On this particular day – Mother’s Day – a Sunday – I was feeling particularly mortal. I had just learned about the cirrhosis. I was going in for an ultrasound the next day, to check for liver cancer. I felt as healthy as could be expected given the circumstances, but the circumstances were not so great. Two more folks from the punk rock days shooting speed in Texas, which is how I came to have this Hep-C that had given me cirrhosis, had died in recent months. Maybe my luck was running out.

Feeling mortal did not dissuade me from that ridge. Instead, it did the opposite. I suddenly understood in a very real way that time was something I was running out of. I stopped being intellectual abstraction. Statistically, the middle of my life was nearly twenty years ago. I couldn’t keep putting shit like this ridge off, hoping that maybe tomorrow I’d have the courage to overcome my fears.

The trail up to the top of Kearsarge Pass is a lot gnarlier than that trail on San Gorgonio.

Kearsarge Pass Trail starts in Onion Valley, west on Independence, which is just north of Lone Pine. In between Lone Pine and Independence is Manzanar, a concentration camp where Americans of Japanese descent were held during World War II, imprisoned solely because of their ancestry and race, a dark time in a young country that is full of dark times, and relevant today because of the racist and xenophobic policies of the Trump administration, supported by fearful mobs of white men who believe that equality has unjustly robbed them of their power.

According to wikipedia, the first known crossing of Kearsarge Pass was in 1864. Of course, this ignores the fact that Native Americans has been using the pass for hundreds if not thousands of years. The Kearsarge Pass Trail continues does from the pass, past the Kearsarge Lakes, to about mile 40 (northbound) of the 212 mile John Muir Trail.

The lakes are clear and beautiful, and warmer than the Cottonwood Lakes.

The eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountains are an escarpment, a much harsher, harder drop down than the gently sloping west.

Mikaela, JMT thru-hiker, Kearsarge Pass

Mikaela, JMT thru-hiker, Kearsarge Pass

Mikaela

Wednesday July 18, 9:30pm, Los Angeles. Sirens blaring in the near distance. Cars driving by. A helicopter overhead. Someone is playing piano at Temple Beth Israel next door. Faintly in the background, the robotic voice of the Gold Line train announcing “This train is out of service”.

These are not the sounds I heard yesterday, taking my fifteen minute meditation sitting on a flat slab of rock, looking down over Kearsarge Lakes, a mile west and 1,000 feet down. What I heard there was distant thunder and the wind.

Mikaela is hiking the John Muir Trail. I met her earlier when I came through the pass on my way down to the lakes for a swim. The John Muir Trail is about two and a half miles west. Mikaela is headed to the Onion Valley pack station, where I started, four and a half miles down, to resupply.

She started her hike at Cottonwood Pass, as did almost everyone else I meet thru-hiking the JMT. This is a little bit south of the beginning of the John Muir Trail, but it’s much easier to get permits to begin there than it is from Whitney Portal.

Mikaela probably has no idea that yesterday President Trump sided with Russia against the United States. How peaceful it must be to be shut off from all the chaos, anger, and idiocy that is happening down at sea level. If more people came up to the mountains or somehow experienced the peace I feel when I’m up here, we probably would not have elected Trump, (and there are those who argue, convincingly, that we didn’t).

The piano playing at Temple Beth Israel is nice, a much gentler human sound than most sounds that drift in my window, but not as nice as the wind, the thunder, the marmot, from Kearsarge Pass. I am sensitive to sound. I prefer quiet.

Swimming in Kearsarge Lakes

Marmot

Marmot

“…the curved one, to God.”

“The straight line belongs to man, the curved one to God.” – Antoni Gaudi

It’s Hardrock 100 weekend. Nikki Kimball ran the race. She’s a great runner, but her best days might be past her. She struggles with depression, and is candid about it. Sabrina Stanley won for the women, leading the race the entire 100 miles. Nikki Kimball, who was running Hardrock for the first time, was back and forth with Darla Askew, a perpetually smiling five time finisher. Here was a tweet:

“Nikki Kimball is third woman at Engineer, mile 51.9, 61 minutes back. Says she took some minutes to meditate, and realize she has to accept aging. Had a talk to herself, and now she’s in great spirits.”

Nikki finished second.

Darcy Piceu, after her win at the Andorra Ultra Trail race, quotes Catalan architect Antoni Guadi: “In order to do things right, you need first love, and then technique”

One of my favorite Guadi quotes is “The straight line belongs to man, the curved one to God.”

Oh, yeah, Darcy also has the women’s FKT on the John Muir Trail.

Kearsarge Lakes

Kearsarge Lakes

Breathe In, Breathe Out.

It’s all about these habitual responses: anger, fear, jealousy, impatience… In order to have some freedom, I need to learn to respond differently, so that the anger passes in a day, and then, as I continue to practice, a few hours, an hour, minutes…

This is important because I cannot spend every moment up on Kearsarge Pass, and even if I could, eventually those thoughts would reach me there. So what I do, and what I have done for the past ten years, with increasing success, is I sit down every day for 15 – 20 minutes, eyes closed, posture erect, and focus my attention on my breath.

I have no fucking idea why this works. I really don’t. But it does, and that’s all I need to know.

I am not trying to stop these thoughts of fear, of anger, of frustration. Instead, I just observe them. Sometimes, I try to follow the thought from its beginning, through the arc, to the ending, which I note. Other times, I just note that I am thinking, and return my concentration to my breath, and maybe to the sensations of my nostrils flaring, or my lungs filling. I enjoy these bodily sensations. I like the way my body feels. I like to be aware of it functioning, and functioning well. I got lucky with this body, I guess, but I also take care of it. I didn’t always. I used to drink, smoke, do drugs, and that has not been without a cost. Twenty one years ago, when I got sober, I was physically pretty much of a wreck. I have hepatitis C, or did; treatment might have finally cleared the virus. I have mild cirrhosis of the liver.

The breath is amazing. It is essential to human life. You can go without food or water for days, but you can’t go without breath for more than a few minutes. Concentrating on the breath is a fundamental meditation technique. It’s also what my Mom used to say, and probably yours too, when you got agitated: “take a deep breath.” Mom was on to something.

I love the way my lungs feel when I’m running, especially on a cold, cold day, when the air is thick and you can feel it going down.

Trail to Kearsarge Pass from the west

Trail to Kearsarge Pass from the west.

2 replies
  1. Jackie Lai
    Jackie Lai says:

    Thank you for your words, and for the reminder to breathe. Best of luck at High Lonesome, you are lucky to be able to run.

    Reply

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