The Buddhist Backpack, Beads (and Bears!) Pilgrimage

Following an idea from the Manly Monk of Vilnius, I declared this weekend the Great Buddhist Backpack & Beads Pilgrimage. The idea was, one step, one mantra, and in 27 miles that would make fifty-five thousand mantra reps. That’s got to be enough to make you a buddha in this very lifetime (即身成佛), right?

But a meditation retreat is always a hilarious circus of human foibles. My mind took the the last song I heard, “Billy Jean,” and for three miles it composed ribald lyrics.

Then came the bears. A mother and two cubs CHARGED across the trail, 20 yards in front of me, like OJ and his blockers. Thank heaven they kept going and started crashing around in the bush. But I couldn’t tell from the noise where they were going—“Do bears circle around and take people from behind?” I wondered—so I walked the next stretch very quickly and “mindfully,” shall we say, before I took my hand off my gun and remembered anything about a mantra.

Also, without armed Buddhists we wouldn’t have kung-fu movies. Case closed.

Yes, there is a tradition of Buddhist pilgrims with weapons, and we just saw why. Bears eat you alive and screaming, even if you’re Buddhist. Mama Bear begins her meal as soon as you’re pinned down, without so much as a break-your-neck.

Wait,” you ask, you would really shoot a charging bear, Mr. Buddhist?” It’s “Dr. Buddhist,” thank you very much, and HELL YES! Ain’t no precept tells you to yield meekly while The Three Bears eat your liver.

Some wiseacre will now point to folklore where bodhisattvas (superhero-saints) offer their flesh to starving carnivores as an act of compassion. (Sigh.) But those are hyperbolic hero tales, like a Wonder Woman comic, not practical instructions for conducting yourself on a camping trip.

Much gratitude to Remi Warren for his lesson about this, or I’d have been lazy and carried my gun in my pack. As they say, “You almost never need a gun, but when you do, you need it real bad.” This whole thing started and finished in 2 seconds.

Read this book if you’re intrigued by anything I’ve written here, other than the stuff about getting mauled by bears.

For a few miles after the bear encounter, the only mantra I was repeating was “HF!! WTF!!!” which is not officially sanctioned. But after that I settled my breath and my feet back into a happy rhythm, and in 5 miles I almost forgot that it ever happened. Feet, breath, mantra, all thumping along cheerfully in time with each other, far from the proverbial smoke and fire of human settlements (人间烟火)–well, it’s pretty close to heaven.

Between the bears and Billie Jean, I only got in maybe 30,000 good reps in, but I’ll take it! Svaha!

Clichés For A Reason

20180811_091756We all made it! The all-night ruck confirmed some clichés that are cliché for good reason:

1) People metamorphose in shocking ways. A bantamweight guy who struggled with sand bags early in the night turned into the Incredible Hulk around 5am. Either he was free-basing something or he’s really, really a morning person.

2) When you feel completely smoked, you’ve only used 10% of your work capacity.

Still not convinced he’s a separate person from Justin Trudeau.

3) The mental chatter (雜念) that Buddhists hate so much stops for almost nothing. During surf torture, I had the added torment of Rod Stewart’s “Do You Think I’m Sexy” on autoplay in my head and I was obsessively analyzing the beach stench of putrescent sea life. (Final conclusion: it smelled half like brimstone and half like unwashed baby bottoms.)

4) Shared adversity bonds people. “Ain’t nobody Superman,” as an old coach said, and even strong performers sometimes flag and need to be “carried” along by the others, so everyone gets chances to take care of everyone else when they’re weak and needy.


Acts of Faith


I had my first encounter with one of the hill dwellers who, I’d been cautioned euphemistically, “isn’t real social.” As it turned out, we just ignored each other. I was taking a break at the side of the road, he was watering Some Kind of Plant Life 100 yards away, and neither of us acknowledged the other. Moments later I was on my way.

When you wander far into the boonies alone, it is an act of faith in people. Where phone service is hours away and the sheriff another hour or two after that, anyone you happen upon with a vehicle or a friend has an almost insuperable advantage over you, and if they wished you harm, they could do it with a free hand and complete privacy, and they would probably get away with it forever.

And yet the people I meet in the middle of nowhere prove cordial and downright benevolent. Most recently it was a couple of thick, rough men with neck beards in a Suburban who stopped to exchange a few words and offer water or a lift, and as they rolled away their parting words were “Stay safe.” I marvel at how nice people are even when they have no reason to be.

I’m not offering an ecstatic panegyric about the innate goodness of humankind personkind, just noticing that we are such social animals that even in settings where we can harm people with impunity, we mostly still do the opposite.

It doesn’t hurt that both parties can virtually take it for granted that the other is armed: an armed society really is a polite society. But by itself that would only explain a wary indifference, not the warmth, concern, and fellow-feeling that’s actually out there.

Fools Rush In


20180716_102134Needing some Macho Meditative Solitude™, I made my first overnight backpacking trip. It must be true that “God takes care of fools, drunkards, and the United States,” because I identify with two of those things and I survived my own rash enthusiasm.

But I did get in a little trouble. I was taking The Belgian Backpack (45# including food and water) through the Marijuana Highlands and down logging roads to a stream below, and I misunderestimated the distance: not 8-10 miles but fully 13 miles to reach water.


I quickly learned that, in this climate, the difference between “Happy as a Clam” and “Really Not OK” is running out of water. I actually began collecting Unappealing Remnants In Nalgene for Emergencies and, so help me, I was moments away from adding some grape flavoring and drinking it to stave off the first dehydration symptoms when, hallelujah, the stream came into view. I jumped in, whipped out my filter straw, and in moments I was happy again.20180716_175238

Happy but footsore and delirious. I’d had to make the trip on 3+ hours of sleep, and I still had to make camp, eat the disgusting food I’d brought, fix my feet, treat water for the next day, and lay things out so I could strike camp in the dark without losing stuff.

The morning’s walk back up was much easier and went as fast as yesterday’s descent. Apparently I can climb hills alright; after decades of squatting and deadlifting, my legs hardly slow down. But when I go down rocky slopes, as yesterday, I pulp my feet and if I have to walk in direct sun, I get feeble like Superman confronted with kryptonite.


Along the way I met a young woman parked along a trail, the only person I’d seen for 24 hours. A friendly sort, she offered a ride and an invitation to spend a week camping with her. I was bowled over by her interest, especially looking and smelling as I did, but then I’m pretty sure she was on meth. So I consulted the Boy Scout Handbook, which advised, “Stay out of trucks with strange women on lonely roads, even ones in mesh tank tops. One way or another, you will end up in a hole in the ground.” So I pushed on.

20180717_075241But people in the foothills amaze me with their friendliness. It’s striking that I have only visited that area seven or eight times but already know as many people there as I do on my own street. (Granted, since pot growing provides most of the local economy, you hear of ornery recluses who are not friendly to strangers appearing on their land and you need to take “No Trespassing – Keep Out” signs seriously. But everyone I’ve encountered there has been exceedingly friendly, in a way that’s unimaginable even in a small, laid-back town like mine.)


As it happened, at the end of this odyssey I had to go directly to two dental appointments, without a shower, and I had to warn the ladies there apologetically that I must smell like a galley slave. They smiled kindly, but I noticed they did not deny it.


Happy Birthday to Snoot

36455439_10105057373220321_4399425753951764480_oA lion-dog in winter. My supremely beloved little Snoot was born 14 years ago today outside Cambridge, Mass., and I became his babysitter the very next day. Even after years of callous parenting mistakes–like the dinner party where I ignored his meek “Help me!” looks all night as mere attention-seeking when in fact he had a wine cork lodged in his teeth–he holds no grudges and wants little more than to be wherever I am.
Happy birthday, my darling. I do not deserve you.