Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Return to Civilization


For three nights and four days, I lived a life in the 21st century without once opening a computer, checking a phone, driving in a car or watching TV.  I also didn’t shave, never used deodorant, never looked in a mirror and pretty much wore the same pants and shirt the whole time. I never had a sip of beer, wine or coffee (but did have a cup of peppermint tea). I never looked a single thing up on Google when faced with an interesting question nor read a single news headline nor even wondered what I was missing. Instead the daily news was on the order of how cool the lake would be this morning, when the afternoon wind would come up and disturb our card game, when the evening mosquitos would send us running into the tent. As mentioned last post, this was my return to backpacking


Today, our little three-generation team of my granddaughter, daughter and I hiked out, got a can of cold coconut water at the Echo Lake little store, got in our cars and went our separate ways, them north toward Portland, me southwest to San Francisco. I drove for over 90 minutes simply enjoying the aftermath of our voluntary time-out from civilization, savoring the changes from 7000 feet altitude in the Sierra Mountains descending to the Sacramento Valley. 


When I stopped for lunch, I still avoided the newspaper headline in front of the sandwich shop, but out of curiosity, got my phone out of airplane mode and peeked at the number of messages. 167 to be exact. Unread, unanswered. My signature would not be on some five dozen petitions, I would miss announced plays or new books, maybe 10 of all of them would be from people who needed an answer for something coming up that I’m involved in, but just might figure it out without me. Some 20 people I know would have birthdays without me greeting them on Facebook. And yet the world goes on. We are so much less important than we think we are. 


Down, down I descended, now in company with some chosen music and a new Audible book. The breathtaking beauty of the mountains now leveled down to the typical mollification of the land and big-laned freeways. San Francisco finally came into view, capped with its signature summer hat of fog. Over the bridge and off the freeway to be greeted by the homeless panhandlers on the side of the road, the cold, grey air, the lights that tell you to stop and start. Back to civilization.


In my younger days, I would imagine the backpacker’s experience as the more authentic of the two, the way folks have lived for thousands of years—well, minus actually hunting, fishing, berry-picking for sustenance. Instead, equipped with a state-of-the-art technology that makes my earlier backpacking look primitive by comparison. The just-add-water Thai curries or chicken teriyakis in the bag, the amazing 90-second water purifier, the lean and light tents put up in a minute or two, the compressed sleeping-bags inside backpacks with perfectly distributed weight and many ingenious pockets, zippers and straps, the reading lights— it’s a whole new world out there! 


And even though I took along the human-centered baggage of cards, crostics, word games, books, etc., it was a lot of time just breathing in sky and stars and shimmering lake water, of scrambling over rocks and crossing log-bridges and traversing green meadows, time to notice bugs and birds and bees. And particularly lovely to share it all with my 9-year old granddaughter Zadie, who was a trooper, genuinely appreciated it and overall did great. So it's tempting to shout out: “Let’s all return to nature!”


But to be perfectly honest, 4-weeks short of my 70thbirthday, I found the physical challenges surprisingly difficult. This 3- mile hike uphill with a 35-lb or more pack on my back was really quite different from my daily 5-mile pack-less walk in Golden Gate Park. I found out that this old body is not really happy to sit on granite slabs, climb the rocks down to the water, sleep on the ground (even on an air-filled sleeping pad). I discovered that the kind of balance one needs for mountain-goat rock scampering is not what it used to be. It was at first a bit sobering that soaking in the beauty and silence didn’t automatically bring me Thoreauvian epiphanies. Is my soul, like my body, less limber than it used to be?


But there are many paths to the spirit. My more well-practiced ones of sitting zazen on a meditation pillow, writing on the computer in a comfortable desk chair, playing piano on a solid level piano bench, watching a show on a comfortable couch, is a bit more to my taste as this stage in my life. Controlling the temperature of the shower (unavailable at the lake) suits me just fine and opening a cold beer is pretty good too! In short, civilization has its downfalls, but at the moment, feels darn good. Off for my beer. Cheers!

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