Down, further down, and Out from Island Lake Basin


As I learned after my big, seven month trip from San Francisco to the Far West and beyond, transitions can be tricky.  All the rich experiences, encounters with physical challenges or heart-skipping beauty, can seem distant and yet present when channeling (what seems like) perpetual motion into the front seat of a car, then moving that car down a highway to an urban destination.  

I woke up early and had a good 45 minutes without the sun’s intensity.  My final session of zazen beside the lake was neither dramatic nor mundane: the phenomenal world subsided into the rhythms of steady breathing, and then it was just me and the moment, then the next one, and the one after that.  Nothing new, of course, since this teaching goes back over 2500 years. And yet to discover and experience it so many times in the course of a lifetime is humbling indeed.  

An hour to take down tent and get everything into my pack, moving it as tree shadows shrink and the sun rises higher.  Finally I’m ready to take a parting photo, heart in my throat due to the poignancy of the moment, and hit the trail.


I encounter people on the trail some 30 minutes later, three women with faces beet red, who appreciate my suggestion they follow the stone cairns that mark the trail rather than the stream trickling down granite.  A bit later, I am asked for directions by a thirty-six couple that seems exasperated.  They don’t have hats, sunglasses, or what appears to be adequate water…and the day is warming up.  They’re still a good hour from Island Lake, their stated destination.  “We got turned around by going too high on the granite, and wasted a lot of time.”  I can imagine their struggles, arguments, frustrations, and then relief at finding the main trail again.  So it goes.  


Shortly after this portrait at the boundary of the wilderness area, I head off trail to the sound of flowing water.  A stream flows over exposed granite, making a pleasant rest and lunch area that is not only scenic but melodic as well.  I relish dropping the pack and wading in the icy water.  It’s probably too late in the narrative to introduce a term that describes water reflections on nearby rocks, tree leaves, or the appropriately positioned human body.  I learned it years ago from my pal Fred Goss, while surveying a stream that ran through his rental property near Lawrence Kansas.  “Ahbazoobahs” seems more descriptive than “reflection” and so there you have it.



From this little oasis back to the car, the trail skirts the eastern rim of Wright’s Lake, an old resort cabin settlement that goes back to the 1930s.  Nothing is overstated or trampled down, and I’m happy to reach the end of carrying a pack that is wearing on my knees and shoulders.  The last bridge helps symbolise for me the transition that lies ahead: backroad to highway, highway to freeway, freeway to city and fog by the San Francisco bay.  


En route, the Friday afternoon commuters heading out of Sacramento and Vacaville astonish me with their numbers.  Going the opposite direction, no obstructions get in the way and I’m home by 5:30 p.m., after only about 2.5 hours on the road.  

Gratitude abounds.

The following image is also part of this most memorable trip, although it is the part that I will quite happily forget.



Island Lake, Last Evening Finale

In a span of about 3 hours, I am treated once again to an atmospheric range of moisture in the air: fog, mist, rain, hail, but no snow.  When I descended Mount Righteous, I stopped for a nap underneath a friendly deodar.  Clouds were moving fast but the sky was blue.  

30 minutes later, I woke to the sound of thunder and high-tailed it back to camp.  The first drops started falling as I kicked off my boots and slipped under the protective fly.  It was short-lived but intense, leaving in its wake a washed and sparkling Island Lake at twilight.  When the wind subsided, there was an exquisite hush on the surface of Island Lake, allowing landscapes and rockfalls and pine trees and stratus clouds to come into focus.  I thought of the reflections as a portal into another dimension, and thought it both worthy and worthwhile to document their transience.  




Sometimes I’d wait five minutes or more for the right moment of clarity, which would pass in a few seconds as another breeze stirred the surface.



So then it was dinner, a quick and quiet affair of rehydrated lasagna that just didn’t taste right.  I paused mid-way through to snap the moon coming over the Chrystal Mountain ridge.


If this was a video, I’d start with the moon and then zoom out to show the scene in full…with the moon just out of the picture to the extreme right (a shiny white glow in the sky).




An hour later, this amazingly gorgeous day ended beside a fire, dry wood a challenge to find but how fine to have the warmth and light.  The last drink of whisky, final mesquite almonds, the Big Dipper hanging vertically with a slight shift of my eyes.


And as if that wasn’t enough, a single shooting comet streaked across the eastern horizon.  I’d gotten up to relieve myself in the bushes by the lake, and had a fine view of the whole sky.  The moon was bright of course, but the comet insisted on calling attention to itself.  

Island Lake, Desolation Wilderness, August 2014

Ok, so it’s been awhile since posting on Far West Passage.  But a trip after a Trip matters, and I want to share some images more than anything else.  It’s not that these are great photos but they do document a rather unique moment in the high Sierra when tropical moisture found its way to the north state at an unusual time.  I can only think of one other trip–to Dinkey Lakes in 2007–when it rained even a little bit. But this time, wow!


The usual backpacking scenario is to drive to the mountains in the mid-afternoon, skirting through Sacramento before rush-hour and then getting on the trail for an hour or so in order to acclimate at a higher elevation.  Rain started outside of Pollock Pines and increased to a downpour by the time I reached the trailhead near Wright’s Lake.  My pack was ready to shoulder and hit the trail, and I suppose I could have done it had I been equipped for heavy rain.

Instead, I waited 45 minutes in the car, then returned to Hwy 50 and found a room at Strawberry Flats Inn.  A great decision, I must say.  I could sleep listening to the sound a stream behind the inn, enjoy a sandwich from Albany, and generally relax, hoping that the morning would let me hike in.


It did, but there were no mountains to admire.  Only a thick layer of clouds like a gauzy blanket draped upon the spectacular scenery.  No matter.  I had every confidence that, in a day or so, those clouds would lift and the grand show would begin.  My main concern was getting to Island Lake and setting up camp before it started raining again.  Fortunately, that’s exactly what I was able to do, with tent and supplies all secure by 1 p.m.  when the mist turned to little drops.  I was inside my cozy little tent, warm under a down sleeping bag, as it hailed, poured, thundered and flashed lightning.  Wonderfully dramatic!

My entertainment during this afternoon of rain and storm was Barry Lopez’ “Desert Notes” about a very different landscape, yet one still demanding attention, a suspension of personality, and great patience to perceive properly.  Any landscape has these prerequisites, even the high Sierra where beauty is abundantly visual and topographical, so much so that any sop can access moments of awe and delight.


The rain stopped around 4:30, allowing a quick reconoiter of the immediate vicinity, restaking the tent for the next battering, and preparing an early dinner.  By 8:00 heavy wet clouds descended, with light rain starting that lasted on and off all night.  Around 2 a.m., another downpour, but I was in dreamland and hardly noticed.


One of the themes of this trip was to disrupt “normal” (that is to say, predictable) time patterns that shape my life and experience.  Mainly, to slow down and appreciate the wonder of the moment in such a dramatic location was a noble and accessible goal.  To that end, I decided to write verse instead of a narrative, letting the lines, punctuation, and images take up as much time as a reader would allow.  There are clunkers and lumps of coal, but there are also a few that ring true and clear after several readings.


And then it was morning.  

On my first attempt at zazen,

sun crested the high eastern ridge

& was radiantly glorious

after last night’s storm,

leaving, in its wake,

flowing wisps of cloud.

Indeterminate, vapour really,  

sun warm on my cheeks

as breath slows down mind,

suddenly barking bursts forth

from very near camp.

Two coyotes with much to say

on opposite sides of Island Lake,

            the howls, yipping, barks and squeals

            went on for an hour

celebrating the fine morning

or a tasty chipmunk

to break the fast.




After 2 hours on the high shining granite

(just below the pass seen above)

I finally appreciate the hugely diverse ridges,

valley lakes, streams rushing musically

though they cry “drought” in the lowlands;

it’s time to leave rock and attend water,

survey wet worlds at 8500 ft.

and see what flows within.




Rivulet from high springs,

            underground snowmelt,

hosts lichen

colored charcoal

firmly rooted to the granite flume,

iridescent moss,

truly perfect,

            precisely alive.



Seated in zazen,

feet dangling in clear mountain lake,

a breeze flutters the surface.

Without leaving the premises

I try to breathe it in.


Eyes open, associations clear,

breath steady:

            the reflected cedars

            oscillate in harmony

with the sound-waves of the stream.


Not sure if I can say it

more simply than that

except to add

this all dazzles

on the mirror of the lake.


I make it back to camp around 2:30, clouds gathering and thunder distant.  My little tent provided all the shelter I need and I am safe and content as yet another storm rolls over the ridges and into the enormous bowl of Island Lake.  Bottom centre is my tent and campsite, not to be confused with boulders nearby.



On Wednesday, August 7th, I decide to make a run for the picturesque mountain to the north of Island Lake.  Its pyramid shape is dramatic and distinct, and on the previous day’s hike I surveyed just how I might reach the top.  The best route leads up the slope directly from my campsite.  With daypack, lunch, ample water, umbrella and poncho, I’m ready to start the ascent…which goes much faster than anticipated.  In 20 minutes, I’m on the ridge.  In 35, I’ve scrambled over huge boulders and now face the mountain’s steep upward slope.  In another 20, I’m scrambling out of scrub pine tree groves and stepping onto the lichen rocks that comprise the summit.  In all directions, the clouds are distant and the views sublime.



Like most mountains in California and elsewhere, a summit log book is protected within a metal box once used to hold bullets.  This particular log book is unique and entertaining, started by a person skilled in graphic arts and ready to show them off.  There are sketches of mountains, roads in valleys, a truck filled with gear, then a page that christens the mountain with the name of “Righteous Mountain.”  I like it because it shows creativity and resolve, unlike many of the boring names that ancient surveyors imposed.  


But another party wants to claim the mountain for a dearly departed friend, naming it Mt. Ryan and announcing that, “call it what you will, the official name of this mountain is…”  

Shortly after that, I read another entry that skewers both names: “I hearby dub this mountain Mt. Hard Boiled Egg in honor of the one I ate just now.”

And furthermore,

One boy aged 12 writes a whole story on two pages, “the dragon slayer,” with accompanying illustrations of a canyon, vines, a flying wormish-looking beast. Meticulous printing in red ink.


“Lord, set this mountain apart for your glory. Come and meet the wandering hiker & set revival fire in our hearts.”


“Every summit is a good summit.”


“Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.”   Frank Zappa


Multi-pitched chorus of sturdy flies

zipping and darting among summit rocks

            such speed! what vibrato!

A tiger-wing butterfly floats through the scene,

just behind it, a little white one

flapping into being

the vast spaces of the summit

which do not crush or obscure

this delicate spirit

at play.


Lunch is smoked trout atop white goat-gouda cheese on a stale bagel, with trail mix and water.  No complaints!


Timed departure from the summit:

            A dance with big cumulus shade

            washing over a million rocks




 More to come on the next page.


Acknowledgements and Bows


It’s important to be mindful of all the factors that made my trip possible. It’s so easy to say “I” took a trip when actually there is a web of interdependent realities, each contributing to the overall project (and passage). Everything in life has the characteristic of interdependency if we take time to really think about how to “connect the dots.” For this Far West Passage, I will list the major “players” first, and then say more about each one in turn.


  1. Miko
  2. USF
  3. Body-mind
  4. zazen
  5. Relatively stable social & political contexts
  6. airline safety
  7. gear: bags, camera, iPad
  8. friends who kept in touch
  9. Max


So first, I have to acknowledge with gratitude and affection my partner Miko, who gave me the green light to do this trip. When funding for my sabbatical year research project did not materialize, it was then a matter of seizing the moment and liberating myself from the confines of academia. My first trip to Nepal (and second to India) took place 35 years ago, and Miko and I have been together for 34, so she has heard endless (and repetitive) accounts of that long-ago and faraway time. She knows how important it was in shaping some of my sensibilities, and perhaps in my turn towards anthropology. The chance to revisit some of these places and add new ones (Indonesia and Turkey) meant a long and sustained trip that, exciting as it sounded, she knew she didn’t want to tackle. So she kept the home fires burning, managed basic affairs, and served as an important link back to the contexts of life in Albany, California. Weekly emails and sometimes Skype conversations also helped to keep our personalities in tune, even as we were dealing with business matters. So thank you Miko!


Next, my university enabled me to do the trip by granting me a year-long sabbatical with no strings attached. I will do a separate entry on what a sabbatical is, does, and makes possible, but suffice to say that the issue is not money (although having 75% of one’s salary for an entire year is like manna from heaven). The main gift a sabbatical provides is time to explore, rest, take chances, think creatively, work without interruption, screw up, make repairs, and so on. It’s the “and so on” that perhaps matters most!


Body-mind balance gave me the confidence to commit myself to months of travel and occasional physical challenges. Had I not been very active all these years–hiking, backpacking, working out, eating sensibly–I would have had a very different and much more sedentary kind of trip. The fact that my knee could heal after an injury in the mountains of Indonesia is testament to the benefits of good health. I was also pretty calm during the trip, handling setbacks with equanimity and delighting fully in new discoveries and adventures. I credit this fairly stable state-of-mind/heart to…


…my ongoing zazen practice. It never gets old, never fails to teach me about myself, and remains a fundamental resource in the kind of life I’m trying to live and navigate consistently.


Relatively stable social and political orders in all the countries I visited meant that a foreigner like myself–such an obvious target for thieves and miscreants–could move about in relative safety. This is no small matter. Compared to countries where one’s health and sometimes life is at risk because of conflict, disease, skin color, country of origin, religious affiliation, or disaster, my trip was mostly free of overt political and social strife (save for Turkey).


Airline safety was another hugely significant factor in this trip. Although I did take chances when in Nepal and India on airlines with sketchy safety records, I was mostly impressed with the professionalism I encountered on all of my 21 flights. I should mention, though, that three days after landing in Pokhara, Nepal, another airline crashed in the mountains, with 18 killed. We saw the cremation of a government official who was on that flight in Kathmandu when we visited the city’s main Hindu temple.


Now we come to the heart of the matter: my gear, various and sundry though it may be, performed wonderfully. When I left the Bay Area in late September for my first two talks in Hawaii, I had to pack everything I thought I would need for the entire trip. That meant clothes for temperate Japan, tropical Indonesia, and winter in India and Nepal. I had 3 bags, the smallest of which fit inside my large day pack so that I could board a flight with only 2 bags. At first, I could carry on both bags and thus avoid the anxiety and time wasted at baggage claim.

The small backpack was my daily go-to bag, safely protecting my valuables and capable of carrying a modest amount of supplies. The 22-inch size wheelie had the option of converting to a backpack in case I needed to schlep it and the other bag over rough terrain. All 3 bags came from REI and held up beautifully. Boots by Keen, running shoes by New Balance.


What made the difference for storage in tight spaces were compression sacks to push the air out of folded clothes and thus provide more space. I had many other smaller bags to carry cords, plugs, medicines, toiletries, clothes, socks, underwear, camera gear, and an extended keyboard for the iPad mini. I did not have a cell phone and now think this was probably a mistake, but oh well. I managed.


My camera, bless its lens, light meter, and motherboard, was a Canon Powershot G15. It doesn’t look like much but its body is metal, not plastic, and it is manufactured in Japan. Only a couple times did I want a telephoto, but not enough to lug around a big single-lens reflex camera like I did last time (a metal-body Nikon, plus wide angle and telephoto lenses). I found that the G15 could get me reasonably close and then, after editing and because of high pixel count, I could crop and zoom to get the close-ups I wanted. There’s already a G16 on the market, and I would buy this model again.

These acknowledgements started out with a personal touch and that’s how they will wind up.

All the friends, colleagues, and even strangers who took time to communicate and express support for this endeavor meant a great deal to me when traveling solo. Although I rarely felt lonely, there were many occasions when I would have enjoyed a face-to-face conversation at dinner or breakfast to recount stories and discoveries, or just to swap information or bitch about this or that. Being in email contact with folks near and far was always inspiring (even when unhappy news arrived) and much appreciated. Sincerely yours…


Finally, a big bow to my son, Max, for taking time out of his busy media-driven life in Tokyo to come into “deep Asia” and spend a week with me in Nepal. Without him, it’s unlikely I would have done the paragliding adventure, which remains among the top five discoveries of the trip.

The fact that we got along so well is also a marvelous and deeply appreciated gift that I will never forget. With any luck, we will try again to be in Nepal together within the next five years, and take a trek along that ridge leading to the high valleys near Machapuchare Himal.





Far West Passage: Completing the Circle, Heidelberg > Frankfurt > San Francisco > Albany

After a memorable final day and evening, I was up by 5:30 to complete final preparations prior to being picked up by a shuttle that would take me to the Frankfurt airport directly.  It was a calm and beautiful morning, with plum trees in full bloom, birds singing, and the sun not yet making an appearance above the mountains that surround Heidelberg.  My heart was in my throat as I got in the van, driven by a man with puffy, dyed-pitch black hair, sort of 1950s style.  No sooner did we get on the high-speed freeway linking Heidelberg to the rest of Germany, traffic slowed down and was backed up for many kilometers.  There were two women on the van and both were mostly asleep the entire way, missing the gorgeous morning scenes of sunlight streaming through groves of trees beside the highway, castles and forts atop hillsides and promontories, and dazzling fields of yellow mustard plants.  

The scenery of the highway to be traveled to the airport, however, was anything but tranquil.  3 lanes of vehicles were crawling along, which our driver found unacceptable and so, to my astonishment, pulled onto the shoulder to the right of the slow lane and began his end-run maneuver.  He did not creep along but accelerated to 70 kmh and would weave in and out of the slow lane whenever he felt like he had made progress.  Thus, the trip that took me to Heidelberg in 40 minutes at a terrific and terrifying speed, now deposited me at the airport in around 70 minutes, giving me precisely 90 minutes to go through security, buy a gift or two, and have plenty of time to calm down and reflect.

More about that later on.  

Thus did the very long day of April 8th, designated long in advance as the completion of my 27,600 mile round-the-world passage to the Far West, come to a happy conclusion.  My dear partner Miko had prepared the house with streamers and a couple charming drawings to welcome me back.  And although I rode the Bart train from the airport to the nearest station, there were no incidents or weirdness to jolt or disturb me.  


So now, as a friend remarked, it is a matter of “landings” into the territories and configurations of the life I left behind.  I will get to these issues in a few days, but will dedicate my next entry to “acknowledgements” of all the components, people, and opportunities that made my “passage” possible.

Far West Passage: Completing the Circle


Sitting on a deck with warm morning sun on my back in Northern California is as good a place as any to bring this travel report to a conclusion (of sorts).

In the last episode, our traveler was still in Heidelberg, Germany, counting down the days before the flight that would take him directly to San Francisco. While marvelous in its efficiency in covering 5,600 miles in 12 hours or so, this flight would also plunge this traveler back into domestic and social contexts that would require full attention and energy to navigate successfully.

But that’s another story.

The second talk I gave (my seventh of the trip) was for a research group titled “Europe and Asia in Global Contexts.”   I’ve already discussed this group, the fine poster my host prepared, and so now need only mention briefly the bare facts of this event that took place some 14 hours before my departure.


Holding a talk on a Monday afternoon during the period between winter and spring academic terms is not an optimal time. Even though I offered to forego the lecture because the timing seemed wrong, my host determined to go ahead and see what would happen. As a result, my transportation costs from the Frankfurt airport were covered, and I got a free meal after the lecture. To my host’s surprise, on April 7th, the room was full and the audience diverse. Students, faculty, post-docs and even a couple folks from the general public were in attendance.

This time, I could focus only on my book and some of its more provocative themes. I met with an IT person an hour beforehand to work through the setup and video links, so everything went smoothly and the talk concluded right on time. Afterwards, there was a discussant –a young assistant professor of Japanese modern history, Dr. Prof. Martin Krauss–who raised a few points and critiques that I then responded to. Standard format…but also amazing because we were operating in English and everyone seemed totally tuned in.


I will mention only one of the discussant’s critiques, and that is the concept of “experimental Buddhism.” He said that over 100 years ago, Japanese Buddhists were “experimenting” with new forms of their religion and trying to make it relevant for a rapidly changing society. Why do you think, Prof. Nelson, that your book is about something “new” and significant?

I’ve entertained this question in several different forms, and have a half-page in my book that addresses it directly. There are two important characteristics that make “experimental Buddhism” in contemporary Japan something new and innovative. First, information technology allows greater access to information, teachings, services, and institutions (to name a few) and so individuals are empowered as never before to be discerning consumers of religious resources. Second, the Japanese state is not involved in contemporary religion the way it was back in the 1880s and 90s. This is hugely significant because it gives both individuals and temples/priests the autonomy to experiment with Buddhist traditions in unprecedented ways.


I talked to a number of people afterwards who wanted to ask questions privately, then went out to dinner at the “Art Hotel” not far from my loaned apartment. After that, a normal conclusion to the day would have been thank yous and see you laters. But the day did not end that way and took a turn that I will never forget. Enough said.


Entertainment Interlude via Celtic Music


Heidelberg was in the middle of a big cultural festival connected with the university, with concerts, theater performances, lectures, and recitals happening almost every other day.  The apartment I stayed in was on Theatrestrasse and adjacent to the main hall, housed in a modernist architectural style that was at odds with its surroundings but which let in lots of light.  

I noticed a poster for Irish/Celtic music scheduled for the Saturday I was in town and was able to hear a band called “The Outside Track.”  4 women (from New Breton, Canada, as well as Scotland, Ireland, and Northumberland) and one guy, originally from Germany and now in Ireland.  Very fine tunes, muscian-ship, and general dynamics on a small stage in a hall that held around 100 people sitting cheek-to-cheek.

Here’s a short video (2’42”) of one of their more lively tunes.