In addition to the typical turkey dinner, with all of the fixin’s, Thanksgiving is a wonderful time to pause, reflect and give thanks for the unspeakably perfect gift of life. Without this, nothing else makes any biological sense.
Thomas Edison regarded himself as an agnostic, however he did concede that the universe was too amazingly complex to be the result of chance. Furthermore, he doubted that humans were capable of comprehending even 1/1000th of 1% of anything. Interestingly, Lewis Thomas (The Lives Of A Cell) agreed with the latter conclusion, but from a spiritual perspective. He suggested that God created living cells that are so complex that humans will never be able to fully explain the inner workings of a single cell. The chances of scientists being able to comprehend the physiological interactions of the 100 trillion cells making up a human being are beyond most rational thought. It is little wonder that Meister Eckhart (14th century theologian, philosopher and mystic) suggested that the ultimate answers to the mysteries of humankind will not likely be found in science.
The YouTube video “The Miracle of Life” traces the fantastic voyage of human sperm in search of an ovum. As many as 800 million sperm may be released during sexual activity and only one will succeed in fertilization. After fertilization is complete, the newly formed zygote typically has all the genetic information necessary to direct all the stages of human growth and development. This includes a journey into the mystical realms of Values, Consciousness and Free Will, a journey without precedent on planet Earth. How could we not be thankful?
The recent fires throughout Napa and Sonoma Counties qualify as Ill Winds.
It is common practice for California Dept. of Forestry officials to name fires by their place of origin. Ergo, the fire that destroyed over 3,500 Santa Rosa homes and businesses began near Tubbs Lane in Calistoga. However, it quickly exploded into a firestorm driven by a 70 mph “Diablo Wind.” The name of the wind could not be more perfect: Devil’s Wind.
Devil Winds are atypical winds that result when high-pressure builds over the Nevada desert and causes air to move toward a low-pressure zone over the Pacific Ocean. As the wind rushes down the western Sierra Nevada slope, it is compressed and gets hotter, drier and faster. This condition is the opposite of prevailing westerly winds that typically blow moist, ocean-cooled air over hotter California climes. Diablo Winds typically occur in the summertime when the combination of higher heat, higher wind velocity and extremely low humidity create a potentially disastrous formula for wildfires in California. In SoCal they are known as the Santa Ana winds.
The Tubbs Firestorm destroyed a several-mile-wide swath, devouring forests, vineyards, homes and ranches on its 15-mile rampage to the north edge of the city of Santa Rosa. Reaching the northeast outskirts of the city, it mysteriously veered south in a fiery inferno that consumed over 2,500 homes. Many residents had to flee with only the clothes they were wearing.
The fire is still active and along with several other fires in Sonoma County, the number of homes, structures and businesses destroyed has exceeded 3,500. It has the potential of being the worst wildfire in California history.
Although Sonoma County lies west of Napa County, Napa Valley has been covered in a thick blanket of smoke since Sunday night. The smoke has been bothersome, but a trifling inconvenience compared to the total devastation that 1,000s of Sonoma residents and business owners are struggling to cope with.
This all changed Wednesday. We thought we were safe until a spot-fire erupted 8 miles west of us, near the junction of St. Helena and Calistoga roads. It was headed in our direction and posed a threat to our home and the town of St. Helena. I drove 4 miles to the top of Spring Mt. Rd. where a Napa Co. Sheriff deputy had blocked the road. He described the fire and said that it was rapidly approaching upslope. He went on to say that pilots were desperately trying to suppress it with fire-retardant, but if they failed he would have to close Spring Mt. Rd. He didn’t have to tell me that if the fire crested over the ridge, its downslope path led directly to our home and the heart of St. Helena.
I was confident that if this happened we could pack up prized possessions and evacuate to our daughter’s home in Tiburon. My wife was not convinced and so we packed up and fled, not knowing if we would ever see our beloved home again.
Although our Tiburon family welcomed us warmly, the night was long and sleep was interrupted with images of our house going up in flames. Finally, morning arrived and we were able to call our neighbor, who opted to wait for the mandatory evacuation order. It never came. Evidently, the amazing pilots were able to stop the blaze on the Sonoma side of Spring Mountain and possibly save our home and the town of St. Helena.
Upon returning home, walking through the house was a surreal experience. When we left, we had to concede the possibility that it would not survive the fire. But it did and we felt a bit like we were in a “Twilight Zone.”
The horrific event has created a schizophrenic dilemma. Of course we are grateful that our home was not destroyed, but heartsick over the misery and trauma that so many have been forced to deal with.
Existentialists might dismiss the cause of the horrific conflagration as simply a capricious whim of Mother Nature, however, I suspect that poets, sages and seekers are more likely to describe the massive destruction as the result of the Devil’s Wind:
Sometimes it is aggravating when IT “reads” my posts and sends me links and ads that “they” think I will like (or buy). However, this was not the case when, after I posted the blog involving Darwin, Mozart and Sunny Choi. Quite mysteriously, a YouTube video of Yeol Eum Son’s performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto #21 popped up. I sat mesmerized by what I was seeing.
As if Ms. Son’s stunning performance were not enough evidence of her virtuosity, she frequently closed her eyes and silently commanded her fingers to find 1000s of notes “in the dark.” The concerto was 32 minutes long, which required her to commit perhaps as many as 30,000 notes to memory. From my highly limited musical ability, I could not detect a single error.
The fact that it is highly unlikely that 99.99% of the world population will ever be able to do what she can do lends credence to the reason why many biological and behavioral scientists call her “gifted.” However, if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, perhaps the ability to discern spiritual gifts is as well.
A well-known British biologist has spent much of his career (and made millions of dollars) railing that there is no evidence for the existence of God. Poor chap. I wonder if he has ever hiked to the top of Yosemite’s Half Dome or to the bottom of Grand Canyon; walked through the Louvre in Paris, visited St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, listened to Handel’s “Messiah,” Mozart’s “Requiem,” or Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony.”
Paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson, people have been endowed by their Creator with the spiritual gift of “free will.” It may be the greatest human irony that some of them have chosen to use that gift in an attempt to deny their Creator’s existence.
It is a rare human being (especially male) who is not vexed by being shown that his logic is faulty. Charles Darwin did not belong to that group and reportedly became furious when Alfred Wallace pointed out that his Theory of Evolution did not explain the origin of exceptional human talents involving music, mathematics and creative arts.
Over 150 years after Darwin’s, “On the Origin of Species” was published scientists reluctantly concede that the origin of Wallace’s triad is still completely enigmatic.
Like Darwin and Wallace, they understand that the three extraordinary talents are not genetically transferred or controlled by instinct and cannot be predicted. Therefore, intellectually honest scientists are obligated to regard these talents as “gifts,” thereby allowing that they must come from beyond the recipients. For devout scientists, this realization can be quite disturbing and require acquiescing to the real probability that, if “gifts” are involved, there must be a “giver.”
Serious “birders,” meticulously maintain a “life list” that records every species of bird they have observed first hand. Likewise, serious “seekers” maintain a spiritual list of wisdom, stories, and events that point to the existence of the “intelligent design” of the universe. This lofty approach of striving for greater spiritual awareness was reflected in the 1954 Audubon Society statement of their philosophy, which began with:
“We believe in the wisdom of nature’s design.”
All of these thoughts gushed forth as I watched Sunny Choi perform a beautiful interpretation of John Denver’s, “Annie’s Song.” Choi is not only a highly gifted musician; she is capable of using a piano as an extension of her body, mind and soul. And if her recital were not enough, to further showcase her gift, about half way through the performance she closed her eyes and silently commanded her fingers to find the notes “in the dark.”
Although it is highly unlikely that 99.9% of the world population will ever be able to do what Choi can do, her gift is not unprecedented.
Wolfgang Mozart lived only 35 years, but demonstrated a level of musical genius that many musicologists regard as “superhuman” and predict will not likely ever be equaled. Although his lifespan was only half of the average of 70 years, he composed an estimated 600 works of music. His music has been featured in over 300 movies. He composed 50 symphonies, 25 piano concertos, 12 violin concertos, 27 concerto arias, 26 string quartet opuses, 103 minuets, 15 masses, and 21 opera works. Some of his most famous operas include “Don Giovanni”, “Magic Flute”, “The Marriage of Figaro”, and “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik or (a little night music)”.
“There is a story that Mozart once said, ‘when the angels sing for God, they sing Bach; but when they sing for themselves, they sing Mozart’”. (Googlesearch.com). There are also reports that some of his works were “note-perfect” on the first draft, which meant that not a single note had to be changed.
Like Mozart, Charles Darwin was spiritually gifted and at the tender age of 19 began to see that the Genesis story of Creation must be allegorical and more profound than man had guessed. He eventually arrived at the conclusion that Creation and evolution must be the result of cybernetic interaction. Evidence of this can be found in, “The Autobiography of Charles Darwin:”
“Another source of conviction in the existence of God, connected with reason and not feelings, impresses me as having more weight. This follows from the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity for looking backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist”
Although I don’t recall him citing Wallace’s triad, he did accept his failure to explain human evolution, which includes the wonderfully mysterious origin of musical, mathematical and artistic gifts.
Although, as a little boy, I attended Sunday school at the little white church in Oakville, Ca., my spiritual search was low-key at best until I was 31 and Lettie asked her fateful question:
“Is memorizing all the parts of a fetal pig really important?”
(Biodesign Out For A Walk, chap. 1. “Genesis: Lettie’s Question.”)
She launched me on a journey that I have been on for over 45 years. This journey has taken me to thousands of wondrous physical, mental and spiritual places and exposed me to some of the greatest naturalists the world has known. One of those people was John Muir, who not only led me to Yosemite, but, coincidentally to the dawning of my spiritual awareness.
However, as a traditional biology teacher, I was intrigued, even a bit conflicted to learn that he kept a copy of The New Testament (plus the Psalms) with him on all of his meanderings. Although I never became a Biblical scholar, there were some puzzling passages that I reencountered over the years. Retrospectively, however, this should not have been surprising. During his trial for suspected heresy, the great scientist Galileo informed his accusers that the Bible contained many metaphors and parables that were often difficult for people to comprehend.
For me, one of those passages was:
The banquet is laid though nobody comes.
Somehow, the seven words were seven fragments that held little meaning.
Evidently, not unlike Dianna (Biodesign Out For A Walk chap. 28, Amazing Faith) I lacked the spiritual awareness of what the phrase meant.
And then recently an amazing synchronicity occurred. A Fb friend was struggling with the woes of modern society and I wanted to cheer her up. She is a Nature lover and so I Googled: Photos: Celebrating the joys of Nature.
The attached YouTube video, by Dewitt Jones, popped up and not only explained the cryptic Bible passage to my often-balky left-brain, but presented another wonderful mystery.
I thought his name was familiar, but I could not recall why. Finally, it dawned on me that I had met him on Yosemite’s Ahwahnee Meadow, 39 years ago. Well, his body wasn’t there, but his spirit was in a book, John Muir’s America, which he coauthored with T.H. Watkins. Watkins did a superb job with the text and Jones added spectacular photos. The book became one of the cornerstones of the Biodesign Class.
However, the intriguing part is that I may not have ever discovered it were it not for the loving members of Biodesign ’79. They purchased the book and presented it to me on the meadow as a birthday/thank you gift. And now, 39 years later, through a miracle of “I-T,” Jones reentered my life and completed the magnificent circle that he helped initiate.
I used to suggest to students that Biodesign was like a wonderful smorgasbord of concepts and ideas. I also assured them that, although some of the ideas may involve human spirituality, I was a biology teacher and not a guru; ergo they were free to agree with or disagree with all physical, mental or spiritual topics. I did caution them that some of the ideas (even John Muir’s) could be challenging, even provocative.
Then along came Dewitt Jones, citing the Bible, suggesting that, for all those many years, we were actually at a spiritual BANQUET and not merely a smorgasbord. The suddenly illuminated passage became perfectly clear.
The countless visual images and emotion-filled moments offered at Yosemite, Grand Canyon and the Mendocino Coast, provided a spiritual banquet which offered food for our souls, far more nourishing than the finest caviar, escargot and champagne. With food like this, it is little wonder that Muir was content to throw a couple pounds of dried bread balls (and some tea bags) into a pillowcase, grab a single wool blanket and vanish into his beloved mountain-wilderness for a month.
I have remained in contact with a few members of Bio ’79. One of them is Lori Evensen, who could not have known that she would be partially responsible for this blog. 39 years ago, all of the students signed the Jones/Watkins book and she signed it:
I hope your birthday will be as beautiful as Yosemite. (Be sure to read pg. 57, a great description of life). Thank you for being you.
John Muir’s America: Page 57:
“No pain here, no dull empty hours, no fear of the past, no fear of the future. Drinking this champagne water is pure pleasure, so is breathing the living air…”
Even though I am not a Biblical scholar, I don’t think it is possible to find single Old Testament reference to God as having a sense of humor. Michelangelo’s dour image of God, painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, reflects the pre-renaissance pessimism common at that time, however, I fear that countless millions of people still consider his image as “spiritually correct.” Is it possible that they fail to appreciate that his image was merely designed to accommodate the mental capacity of the unlearned? As a deeply spiritual man, Michelangelo knew that it was humanly impossible to “paint the face of God.” And this is what he may have in common with cartoonist Gary Larson.
However, if God lacks a sense of humor, this begs the question as to where humor came from.
Darwin’s theory of an ever-evolving, “dog-eat-dog world,” dripping in blood, offers few clues. While there are numerous examples of young mammals that seem to enjoy playful, even comical behavior, most zoologists claim that pre-human mammals (and all birds) lack the cerebral cortex tissue necessary to experience humor.
Fast forward to human evolution: there are many legends and stories that indicate that many Native Americans appreciated the importance of humor. Along with healers and medicine men, many tribes appointed “delight makers” who displayed all the talents of medieval court jesters.
The Greeks formalized the role of humor by illuminating the yin-yang relationship of tragedy and comedy (which often included humor).
Circus clown, Emmett Kelly, elevated the art of clowning to unprecedented heights with his creation of “Weary Willie.” And western rodeo shows demonstrated that “rodeo clowns” could employ their skills by distracting angry bulls from attacking fallen riders.
In 1973, Stephen Sondheim wrote the score, “Send In The Clowns,” which was featured in the musical, A Little Night Music.
About the same time, Gary Larson began entertaining the world with his brilliant cartoon strip titled, “The Far Side.”
So how could this possibly have any relevance to Grand Canyon? Of course I am biased, but I think that Larson’s cartoon featuring a panoramic view of Grand Canyon, just may be one of its most profound (albeit silent) descriptions. The single frame shows a wide-angle view from the rim of The Canyon. A couple is sitting in small car, presumably enjoying the view. There is nothing humorous about the frame until you look at the lower right corner. The scene is being lifted up into folds of canvas curtain, revealing a broom, sweeping out dust from behind.
In a single, extraordinarily clever frame, Larson identified an almost universal response to visitors who reach the rim of the Grand Canyon. It is so vast that there are no experiential reference frames to compare it with. The simple truth is that it is a miracle that defies human comprehension: thus the segue to Michelangelo’s “Face of God.”
If ever there was the perfect place to apply Zora Hurston’s adage “You got to go there to know there,” (Their Eyes Were Watching God) Grand Canyon is that place. Hopefully, avoiding the elitist label, the immensity and magnitude of Grand Canyon cannot be fully appreciated from the rim. One has to “hike there to know there!” Of course, the longer the hike the better, however a walk down to the Colorado River, and at least one night at Phantom Ranch and hike back up will be likely an adventure that most will consider as the greatest hike in their life.
Larson is a genius who combines all the attributes of a Native American “delight maker,” Greek humorist, medieval court jester, contemporary satirist and clown extraordinaire. His Grand Canyon cartoon reveals the futility of trying to describe one of the world’s greatest natural mysteries.
Scientists, sages and naturalists have written endless accounts of Grand Canyon, but I find it pleasing to combine Larson’s image of Grand Canyon and poet Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Last Chrysanthemum:”
I talk as if the thing were born
With sense to work its mind;
Yet it is but one mask of many worn
By the Great Face behind.
“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Many of the older Scots claim that they can communicate spiritually with deceased family members and friends by a process they call “kything.” If this is so, I am guessing that John Muir recently did the Scottish version of the “dance of joy” in his heavenly habitation (“God And The Angels Be True”).
Muir believed that Yosemite’s Half Dome was a high altar, appropriately situated at the east end of what he regarded as a natural cathedral, seven miles long by one mile wide. Altars are natural or man-made shrines that have been consecrated by the hearts of men for the purpose of religious or spiritual ceremonies or events. Muir expressed deep concern that many have forfeited their God-given gift of spiritual celebrations at these altars. Although regular church attendance in the US may be declining, for those who make the 5,000 ft. climb up to the top of Half Dome, it is not uncommon for them to triumphantly raise their arms.
With this being so, Mark Salvestrin recently committed a personal rite of sanctification by simply raising his hands (and a book) to the heavens. The book was inspired by John Muir and written by over 700 very curious and very courageous high school students. In the letter previously posted he wrote:
“Some of the concepts we learned and the ideas we shared took shape as threads that would be intricately woven into the fabric of my life.”
Following John Muir (and a plethora of mentors) Mark has immersed himself in Nature, evinced by the recent pilgrimage that he and his wife made to the top of Half Dome. Two weeks later, they doubled up with a hike to the top of El Capitan. The views from “El Cap” are as impressive as those from Half Dome and can be reached without experiencing “Disney Land” throngs of people crowding the trails.
My best guess is that Mark chaperoned at least 10 Biodesign trips. He will deny it but, in a splendid irony, the book he is offering to the cosmos would not have been possible without his loving support and guidance.
Furthermore, what he did not mention was that he, and over 700 other students, added threads that were woven into the fabric of the author’s life. Soul building was part of what we were about, along with accepting Muir’s challenge to get as close to the heart of Nature as we could.
The photo of Mark holding up a summary of 24 years of wilderness adventures gave me goose bumps. None of the adventures would likely have happened without a very perceptive girl asking a simple yet profound question. As Muir feared, I could have missed over 30 celebrations at his High Altar and spent my career dissecting fetal pigs.
It is my sincere wish that some of the lessons that Mark and I and hundreds of others experienced on our wilderness excursions, will be shared to lift the spirits and gladden the hearts of readers.
The first day I walked through the door to room 103 I had no idea how an advanced Biology class would influence the rest of my life. Some of the concepts we learned and the ideas we shared took shape as threads that would be intricately woven into the fabric of my life. I wish I could say that at last those lessons have been mastered but even now principle is much easier than practice.
My family has heard and read about some of the adventures we experienced but this past weekend I was able to share first hand with Amy and Kaitlyn some of the magic Biodesign imparted to those brave or curious enough to sign on. After months of anticipation the day finally arrived for us to attempt the hike up Half Dome. With permits in hand, we set out at 4:45 am to see if we had what it takes to stand on top of that iconic peak.
The adventure actually started months earlier for Amy and I. We logged nearly 60 miles on the weekends prior to the hike. Several day hikes in excess of 13 miles at altitudes up to 9000 feet were the cornerstones of our training routines. One was even a day trip to Yosemite, up the Mist Trail to Little Yosemite then another two miles up the Merced, fishing as we went and then back down the Mist Trail fighting our way past about 3000 people in that 3 mile space. As we came around a corner below the Vernal Falls viewing bridge there was a young man down on one knee, his wife to be still with her mouth open in shock and yet to say yes. She eventually did say yes and I grabbed his phone and took their photo with him back down on his knee.
I thought we had trained adequately for the hike but I was wrong. I thought I had planned everything out so that the hike would be strenuous but not overly difficult. Again, I was wrong!
It had been 20 something years since I last made that climb and as with all things time had softened the task (and me). We purposely started nearly two hours before sunrise so that the grueling steps up the Mist Trail were mostly behind us before we could see well enough to realize it. That plan seemed to be perfect as we reached the top of Vernal Falls by 6:00 and the top of Nevada Falls by 7:15. 8:00 had us at the upper end of Little Yosemite and, though I didn’t know it yet, I was feeling way too confident about our progress.
Like so many things about this hike, I did not remember how grueling the grade from Little Yosemite to the base of the staircase is. I now fully understand what those before me went through just getting to that point. After a break at the base of the stairs we checked in with the rangers and started the ascent up the granite stairs. Amy and Kaitlyn were above me and I was struggling to get my legs started again. It was the first of two occasions where I had serious doubts as to whether or not I would be able to finish the hike. Eventually my legs loosened up and I felt better about continuing but it was very unsettling to have had the realization that I quite possibly may not be able to finish the ascent.
When we reached the base of the cables I did my best to hide my uneasiness and mask my shaken confidence. This entire endeavor had been my idea, my desire to share part of what I had been given over the years with those that I loved and I was no longer sure I could pull it off. At that point, the fearlessness of youth pulled us to the bottom of the cables. Not my youth, that’s long gone, but Kaitlyn’s desire to put the last bit of the climb behind us forced me to push myself past the uncertainty.
As we started up the cables I began to relax a little. The pace was extremely slow due to the fact that every board had a person standing on it. Every one from top to bottom and most had one person going up and one person coming down. While this slowed the pace it also gave one time to consider what was happening. As I said before, time had softened more than just the task at hand but now I was also acutely aware that the fearlessness of youth I once possessed was gone. I wanted to think it had been replaced by wisdom but given my situation I had a hard time reconciling that notion as well.
This was the second time that I had no idea how I was going to continue on. I only had seven steep boards left. Amy was three ahead and Kaitlyn was on top and out of sight. Even now as I write this I have no recollection of what got me past that last 100 feet. I was completely out of breath, arm tucked over the right cable and sure I was done and then the next thing I knew the three of us were sitting on top taking in all the breathtaking views we had earned.
The entire hike took far longer than I had anticipated. Though we reached the top at 12:45 pm it would be nearly 9:00 before we were comfortably seated in the car. The slow descent down the cables and staircase along with the added 1.4 mile decision to avoid the Mist Trail and the extra half mile past the trailhead parking lot because it was full made the entire excursion about 19 miles. We decided to take it as slowly back as we needed to and with the exception of the last mile or so all three “C’s” were kept in check.
As you will see from one of the photos I have sent you, Biodesign was quite literally (pun intended) with us and I will be forever grateful for the experience I gained from our outings. I will say however, it was the two women I was with this time that pulled me up that mountain and I will likewise be forever grateful for their strength, patience and love.
After Biodesign students explored Yosemite, Grand Canyon and the Mendocino coast, it was not uncommon for them to vow publicly (or privately) to return to one of the areas when they became adults. I have no record of how many achieved that goal, but I do know of one ex-student who has climbed Half Dome 8 times.
Therefore, I was not surprised when an ex-Biodesigner mentioned that he was joining a group that was going to retrace the hike that his class took over 20 years earlier.
His class rode a bus from Yosemite Valley to Glacier Point and as the bus approached Washburn Point, Half Dome loomed into view. I have seen that view approximately 40 times and each time it has left me breathless. The student responses were predictably gasps, oohs and aahs, however, on one occasion a student blurted out, “He’s freaking crazy if he thinks I am going to sleep up there!”
An orientation discussion included the major landmarks; Muir’s description that glaciation was the primary force that created Yosemite Valley and the current theory that Half Dome did not have another half, but was an atypically formed “pluton.”
After allowing time to absorb the sublime beauty, the group headed south, 1.4 miles to Illilouette Fall. Turning left at the waterfall, they ascended the Panorama Trail to Panorama Ridge.
[I agree with many veteran Yosemite hikers who regard the Panorama Trail as the most dramatic, and thus inspirational, trail in the entire Park. The trail is mostly level and the easier walk provides the opportunity to better appreciate the stunning new perspectives that appear around every bend.]
After approximately 2 miles the trail descended steeply downhill and joined the John Muir Trail, which originates in Yosemite Valley. A short walk to the top of Nevada Fall provided a great place to remove backpacks, relax and eat lunch. After a leisurely lunch, the students donned their backpacks and trudged 1.8 miles to their first trail campsite in Little Yosemite Valley.
The next morning, after breakfast and a briefing of the day’s activities, backpacks were hoisted and they began the challenging, 4-mile-hike up 2700 ft. to the top of the 8800 ft. Half Dome.
After sleeping on Half Dome, the group made the 10-mile descent back to their basecamp at Yosemite Valley.
After the ex-student returned, I contacted him with a request to hear about his adventure. He gladly obliged and filled me with wonderful stories and images. His group left their backpacks at Little Yosemite Valley and they hiked up Half Dome in time for a gorgeous sunset.
“It was a hard hike,” he said, “I don’t k now how our whole class made it with backpacks on.”
However, when I casually asked him how they handled the trail meals, he looked a bit sheepish and said, “Our guides took care of all of that.” I was not aware of such services, but quickly connected the dots and blurted out, “I HATE YOU!” Of course he knew that I was kidding and we shared a hearty laugh.
He obviously had not forgotten that a major chore for the Biodesign trips to Yosemite was preparing trail meals for a group of 30. Rather than packing 15 small backpack stoves, we took three MSR Rapidfire stoves. Each one sounded like a small jet airplane, but could get six quarts of water boiling in about 10 mins. We carried 3, 6-qt. pots and each pot provided enough hot water for 10 hikers.
He continued, “Only some of us had some equipment and rather than spend a lot of money on equipment that we would probably never use again, we hired two guides. They supplied all the equipment, cooked all meals on the trail and filtered all the water we needed.”
When I shared this with Christie, not unkindly, she burst out laughing and said, “I didn’t know that Yosemite had “Sherpa Guides!” LOL
My curiosity was piqued and so I went on-line to research “Yosemite Sherpa Services” (just kidding) and found a plethora of options available. The guide service that I Googled charged $900/per person for a three-day backpack trip similar to the one we took. At first, I was a bit shocked, but quickly recovered and concluded that the price was reasonable for what most participants would call, “a-once-in-a-lifetime-experience.” The $300/per day for guide, food and equipment seemed like a bargain compared to the $450/per night for a room at the Ahwahnee Hotel. Furthermore, it pleased me that our 6-day Yosemite trip cost our students $50. (with confidential scholarships readily available.) When I apologized to parents about the cost, they frequently dismissed my concerns and said their kids cost them more than that when they were at home. ;o)
John Muir hiked mostly alone at Yosemite and was happy with a single wool blanket and pillowcase with some dried bread balls and some tea. However, I truly believe that he would both approve and marvel at the evolution of the latest backpacking equipment and trail techniques, including professional guides. After all, he himself guided many Yosemite visitors, including President Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt was so impressed with Muir’s wilderness that, after returning to Washington D.C., he ordered 230 million acres to be protected and formed the foundation for the US National Park Service and the US Forest Service.
The Biodesign Class of 1978 was only the second class to reach the top of Yosemite’s world-famous Half Dome. They donned their backpacks and labored for 10 miles while gaining nearly 5,000 feet of elevation. The last ½ mile involved climbing a steep series of granite stairs and ascending 400 feet of twin cables up a 45-degree grade. The added weight of the backpacks was challenging for the experienced hikers and was nearly overwhelming for some of the beginners. They had been forewarned that the hike would be a group effort and no one would be left behind. Therefore, when the last hiker topped the brow of Half Dome there was a joyful celebration with lots of tears and hugs.
An orientation session helped them find important landmarks. After setting up a bivouac area, water was heated for trail-food dinners. After dinner the class was treated to an extraordinary spectacle of a blood-red sun dropping below the western horizon. When they turned around to return to the camp area, Mother Nature offered an encore performance of a glorious full moon rising in the east.
After sunset the temperature dropped quickly and students huddled closely together in a circle to share visions and reflections of the day. In addition to a collection of John Muir’s writing, I carried a collection of quotes, aphorisms and adages that were selectively used to enhance discussions. Plato was on our reference list of poets, sages and author’s and I offered the following:
“What if the man could see Beauty Itself, pure,
unalloyed, stripped of mortality and all its
pollution, stains, and vanities, unchanging,
divine…the man becoming, in that communion,
the friend of God, himself immortal;…would
that be a life to disregard?” – Plato
Plato’s words offered a poignant contrast for the students to contemplate. The only blemish on the gorgeous sunset was the layer of smog that could be seen hanging 50 miles away over the San Joaquin Valley. However, at nearly 9,000 feet the sky was nearly perfectly clear. The stars seemed to be competing to see which could be more brilliant. The air was absolutely still and created a profound silence that was truly sublime.
Following a pause in the sharing, Theresa mentioned that she worked as a counselor at a summer camp for kids with impaired hearing. Evidently, the eerie silence was helping her identify with her campers. She mentioned that she had to learn A-S-L (American Sign Language) in order to “speak through my hands.” And then she said, “I heard a lot of stuff about this class, some of it was pretty weird. Maybe now I know why. We have been in class for only a little over a month; we have climbed a mountain together and I can honestly say that I love every one of you like a brother or a sister. A-S-L has a sign for this kind of love and I would like to share it with you.”
She raised her right hand, folded down her middle and ring fingers, leaving her thumb, pointer and pinkie extended. “It’s kind of a sign-language shortcut,” she said. “The pinkie means ‘I’, the thumb and pointer form an ‘L’ and the pinkie and pointer form a “Y.’”
The lesson was a huge success and the students enjoyed flashing the “I Love You” sign for the rest of the trip. And it didn’t stop there. They used it for the rest of the year and its use was passed down to all the following classes.
The last day arrived and before we headed home we went out to the meadow for what proved to be an emotional a final circle. The mighty Half Dome loomed one mile above our heads. It was time to say “good bye” to Yosemite and it became a bittersweet parting. Of course, every student had a unique experience, but I think a common source of their emotional catharsis can be traced to the two spiritual wells of Joy and Sorrow.
Their joy came from innumerable, priceless scenic images, memories of stress, pain and growth; trail camaraderie and an experience that Joseph Campbell would have described as, “The Soul’s High Adventure.” Most had seen things that they could never have imagined, and in doing so, discovered things about themselves that they never knew existed.
The sorrow probably came from knowing that they would soon be leaving John Muir’s cathedral and would not be able to explain their experience to family and friends. They were also keenly aware that they would be descending back down to the lowland with its smog, grime, crime and rampant materialism.
One Love! One Heart!
Let’s get together and feel all right.
See the children cryin’ (One Love!);
See the children cryin’ (One Heart!),
Sayin’: give thanks and praise to the Lord and I will feel all right;
Sayin’: let’s get together and feel all right. Wo wo-wo wo-wo!
However, there was often a deeper and more universal cause for their sorrow. On several occasions students wondered why world leaders could not discard their artificial pomp and shallowness and climb a mountain and spend the night. They wondered if world peace could become a bit more plausible if this were to happen?
After all, John Muir predicted nothing less when he wrote:
“The great poets, philosophers, prophets, able men whose thoughts and deeds have moved the world, came down from the mountains.”