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.
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.
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, but I’ll take it! Svaha!
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.
To prep for the all-night ruck, I’m going out for a couple of days again in the Marijuana Highlands to conduct Official Scientific Inquiry.
Here are today’s
dumb experiments Highly Dignified Research Questions.
1) How little food can I get away with? When I’m ketotic, I can go a long time comfortably without eating. This is really liberating, because it frees up time in my day, and space in my rucksack too.
On my last trip, I relied on an ad hoc mixture of peanut butter, berries, and a little protein powder, all blended into a paste. Sounds awesome, right? Surprise! It was disgusting, especially served warm. I brought 3500 calories’ worth of the stuff, but I could only make myself eat about half of it. Whoever said “Hunger is the best sauce” definitely had a good insight, but that doesn’t mean it makes anything palatable. At least not after only one day.
But I didn’t feel hungry at all, and when I got home my Tanita scale seemed to think that I’d tapped right into stored bodyfat to make up the difference. On this trip I’ll try to repeat the trick and make note of my “before” and “after” bodyfat %. Instead of the peanut butter mixture—sorry, my friends, not even for Science—I’ve got sardines and jerky (1700 cal, 575g).
2) Am I dressing right? The event is two weeks away, and I’ve been warned to road-test every single piece of equipment I’ll bring, from boots and socks on up. On this trip, I’ll “interview” the Big Black Boots, my wool socks and sock-liners, and my best candidates for shirt and pants.
Quiv the Gear Sage has told me of an advanced phase of gearwhoredom in which one has tried everything possible and dialed in one’s preferences. I’m still far from that, but I’m showing a clear pattern: so far the stuff I like best is often German. Maybe they just happen to cut their trousers right for my Stumpy Wrestler Body, which is half Alsatian. (D-Zazzle, you opened my eyes about trousers with a nice, high waist.) And maybe the Germans really understand my northern European genes, because I’ve tried every kind of shirt I own for carrying heavy stuff through hot weather and I’ve found nothing that protects me from a killer sun as well as the Bundeswehr’s tropical shirt. So these days, my starting hypothesis is always “Bundeswehr.”
This time I’m trying to pack more judiciously and save weight, but it’s hard to get persnickety about 2 oz. here or there when I’m bringing 8L of water. That’s almost 18 pounds, amigos! However, after last time I resolved to always bring enough that I wouldn’t have to consider, comment disez, “recycling” water.
Needing 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.
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.
But 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.