A Last Hike (for now) on a Significant Day: Dec. 27

30 years ago on this day, Miko gave birth to our dear son. I was a willing participant in the overall endeavor, awestruck witness to the event itself (despite doctors saying “it’s not allowed”), and was humbled beyond belief at my powerlessness. Still am! Happy b.day Max!

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I started this 27th day of the month early, a last hike intended before moving back to McLG, and was mindful of its significance as I walked the first part of the trail. I compiled in my head a “top 10 list of things you don’t know about being born,” to send to Max at some point. But then the mountains grabbed me and my attention got focused on what Zen calls, “things as they are” (genjô). My intention was to head to (what I am calling in error) the upper Vishnu shrine above Guna village (which I thought was Baal village!) Get it straight, mon!

Very delightful to approach the bridge after 40 min. on the trail and hear flute music. The same refrain is played over again, and where the musician on a veranda by a riverside house can see me on the upper trail, I do a dance then keep moving. Five minutes later, I am shaking his hand at the River Guest House, where he says he gets 400 people during the high season, at 400 rps. per. Can’t imagine that is possible on this cold day, where we are the only two people having a chat in English within some distance.

The nasty little dog barks at me again at the top of the steps, but it keeps its distance since this time I have a stick in my hand. One minute later, I turn off the main trail and on to the track heading to the upper temples. Since opening the hotel room curtains at 7:15 a.m., I knew that clouds would be a factor and by 11:15, they have concealed the peaks. And since the main motivation to do this upward hike is to get closer to the high Dhauladar ridge, my gumption lags. At a rocky clearing, I survey the valley and villages below, feel the icy snap of the wind through my jacket, and decide to go downhill…with a big smile on my face! I try a photo op at the upper village shrine where I strike various poses before finding one that doesn’t look ineptly or ridiculously staged. This is a significant historical moment in my life, high on this ridge, Naddi village in the distance, Guna village my teacher for the third time, and so the question is just what else can I see here?

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It turns out there is plenty. A lunch on top the high point over the village is followed by a nap, then a rousing period of breathing and shakti yoga that results in a burst of clarity. I feel at the apex of a network of intertwined awareness. My own is but one small part of this web, which includes all animals and hawks and steppe eagles soaring by. I hold this place called (for convenience) “Naddi” as a universe unto itself, of which I will encounter but a tiny fragment.

I have ideas in my head: first, walk to the far end of the Guna/Baal ridge, then descend to the river and visit the lovely waterfall and pool visible from my Naddi room window, and finally ascend to the main trail via a rocky spine that seems recently traveled.

But it’s not to be. I have a picturesque walk through people’s courtyards and lives (entirely women, now that I think of it…sweeping, chatting, nagging, etc.), ending up on a narrow little path skirting a barley field.  A small goat wants company…a decrepit building is fast on the road to impermanence.

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My good luck leads me to an overlook where a group of brightly-dressed women are relaxing after a morning gathering leafy branches (to feed to resident goats, use as kindling, etc). They watch me survey the valley, then I come over, repeating “Good morning” and “Namaste” a couple times. They’re friendly, and some of the younger women are pretty, so I launch into my question: what is the meaning of life in Himachal Pradesh?

Well ok…I’m being needlessly obtuse… when the question was about getting down to the river and walking up the other side. And yet, now that I’ve unleashed that question, how would they answer? Would they have the conceptual means to construct a narrative about “meaning” and “life?” On this day when our son was born, what would I say if someone asked me?

So after they tell me via loud expressive strings of words and accompanying facial and hand gestures that I’d be f..ing nuts to do this river crossing, I am grateful. To show appreciation, I get them to pose for a photo that I plan to print and send later via a young man in the village met on an earlier walk. One young woman bails from the group, cracking what must be jokes and abuses towards the skinny foreigner, but later joins in for the third round. Another young woman makes herself photogenic quickly, even showing a bit of skin around her lovely shoulders, and stands out for her consistent pose…in fact, they all pose! Not the older women who are enclosed within themselves and hardly participate in the banter and excitement. And it is exciting…especially all those smiles, giggles, laughs, and exclamatory remarks (some obscene perhaps?) on seeing the final results on the camera’s screen display. What would be the Hindi equivalent of OMG!?

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No sooner do I excuse myself and say “bye” than I bump into a tall, grey-haired foreign man, the first foreigner I’ve seen up here in many days. The pink house is his, where he’s been living for 20 years…a German from Barnau (?). I ask how he handles Hindi and he says he can’t learn languages because his eardrums got punctured by explosions in the Vietnam war, which he covered as a free-lance photographer. “I hitchhiked into Vietnam, and there was an opening for a photographer and I needed money, so that’s what happened.” When I ask whether his photos are online and viewable, he responds, “they just magazine photos. Nothing special.” And I keep moving before the gravitational field of his heavy heart
begins to affect the soaring lightness of my own.

Had I not been turned back at the edge, I would never have seen one of the most beautiful trails in the area: from Baal village down to the bridge.
Not only is it mostly trash free, it has little retaining walls and lovely level places where it runs beside grassy terraces awaiting spring planting. I’m ready to photograph a tree-trail combo when an old man carrying branches steps into the frame. And as if that image isn’t enough on its own, he has three goats in tow. Yes, he responds to my gesturing, he’s cool with me taking a photo and so I snap away, goats included, and press a small bill into his hand. He’s surprised and refuses at first but I insist and he smiles and says, “danivad”/”thank you” at about the same time I do. Perfect timing, setting, encounter, all in a few seconds. Thank you indeed.

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On the shady return trail, I run into students heading home after their Friday education. They are just fine to pose for me, and the boys in particular exude a wholeness of themselves that is as concentrated as it is charming. When I was that age, I was riding my bike and plodding the streets of a small town in Kansas to and from school. Nothing nearly as exciting as a mountain trail in the Outer Himalayas, where snowfall, mudslides, forest groves, monkeys in the trees, eagles and hawks in the sky, and occasionally a foreigner are the normal ingredients of “going to school.”

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Once back in my room, watching the last light on the high peaks that have emerged from their cloud veils at the end of the day, I have a little ritual dedicated to all the people with whom I crossed paths today. I have carried with me since San Francisco a little hard-shell case containing sticks of thin, Japanese style incense, and so extract one of the best kinds and fire it up. Three bows to the villages and people (all Hindus) convey one of the most basic petitions in Buddhism:

May all sentient beings be happy,
May all sentient beings be free of suffering,
May all sentient beings live in peace.

(Adapted from the Brahma Viharas, or the “Four Immeasurables” that emphasize loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity)

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