Postcards from the Road, #9, Yosemite

After Poland I got a few days at home and then was off again to, what has become an annual event, the St. Francis Backpacking Pilgrimage or in lighter moments our leader, the Rev. Stephen McHale calls it “Priests Gone Wild-Yosemite Edition” because that is where we went, Yosemite, and that is who we are, a bunch of priests.   Yosemite, what a mystical place, and long on my bucket list, as I had never been there until this visit.  Getting my first glance of Half Dome and El Capitan as I drove into the valley made me fully realize what people had always told me, that pictures do not do it justice.   That was true.  Nothing can prepare you for the magnitude or to be able to take it all in.   No camera lens could fully capture it.

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This pilgrimage began three years ago with our first hike in the North Cascades.  Some of you will remember it, hiking east of Darrington, over the divide, and then down into Holden Village.   It was a haul for me I have to say, but I did it.  I was not sure I would try again after that one.  In fact, I missed the next one, last year, in the desert outside Las Vegas, where the group encountered quick sand, in truly scary ways, and the lack of water, and a flash flood!  After hearing about that, I was even more unsure I would go again.  But, there is a lure of being in the wilderness, in places only a few humans have gotten to see, and it is true pilgrimage to do such things, and so, with time in between, I forget the worse parts.  We do that.  Instead, what stayed with me the most were the good ones.  I made a few requests, more downhill, and less uphill, less miles each day, a few beaches along the way, maybe some tiki bars too!  Of course, I didn’t get all that I requested, but Yosemite was a true draw, a place I have dreamed about.

We all arrived on Sunday September 1st, into Oakhurst California, which is still some 40 miles or more away from Yosemite Valley and from our trailhead.  We set out Monday morning for the permit, the last minute tastes of civilization, i.e., Starbucks, and then off to the trailhead.  I had done all I could to pack light, an exercise that is not always easy for me.   This summer and “sabbatical of pilgrimage” has however, refined my skills.  The Camino trip required one piece of luggage, carry on size, to be ferried around each day, one piece, under 35 pounds.   So, for that 20+ day trip, I felt I had truly accomplished “light packing.”  Of course, on the Camino I did not have to carry all my food for the week, in a bear resistant canister that already weighs 2.7 pounds, and even more, pack out my garbage, so it did not entirely relate.   I ended up with about a 43 pound pack, without adding water, which when you carry that adds a couple more.  I was bound and determined to carry all of what I brought, and not burden anyone else.  (We learn so much about ourselves on these hikes!!). That last sentence is me, in life, and so I hoped to learn from such things.

One very important lesson I learned on the last one was one we all shared in those days, the premise that basically we pack for our fears.   I think this is like life too.  We carry along, hoard, keep close, render too much homage and attention to, those possessions and “needs” we most fear not having.   For some the greatest fear is hunger, so we bring too much food.  For some the greatest fear is cold, so we bring more clothes, heavier clothes than we need. For some, the greatest fear is being wet, so they bring an umbrella!  For some it is running low on water, and so they carry lots of it!  You get the point.  It is a great lesson for life.   Last time my two fears were food and cold.  Neither fear bore out.  I was warm as toast on that trip, and took way too much food.   This time I did better.  And I did, in fact, carry everything of mine, the entire way, strained knees and hips, and all.

The beauty of this trip is not describable.   Yosemite, the tiny parts we saw, lived up to every dream I had of it, and more.   I share a few glimpses in this blog, but again, no picture can capture it.   We used the poet Mary Oliver and John Muir, the father of Yosemite, as guides and as reflection partners.  I was blessed by their words, and by the selections my fellow travelers chose.   One of Muir’s was “I go into the woods where I can lose my mind, so I can find my soul.”  I thought about that one a lot as we walked.

On these pilgrimages we pray, by assignment, all along the way, morning, evening, and we usually hold an Eucharist midway.  On the first hike it was my great honor and blessing to preside on top of Cloudy Pass, just after a bear ran through the meadow below not nearly as enthralled with our presence as we were.  This time it was just below a snowbank, on a warm day, at 9000+ feet next to Buena Vista Lake.  That circle of us, singing, praying, being blessed is one of the best parts of these hikes.

As I said, you learn a lot about yourself on these hikes, some you like, some you don’t.  Like life, some you don’t totally see yourself, or interpret as well as those who are around you might.  I learned I don’t generally suffer the climb, the pain, the sweat, the sore legs, the gasping lungs, with as much dignity as I ought.  I can have fun with that but often I don’t.   I am still sitting with all of that.  Because I do hate that part, and yet I love what comes at the end, a swim in a icy lake or river after all of that, I am trying to still learn from that journey, so I might walk this one in a more gentle way.  Sitting around a fire with some of the best people I know and am privileged to be in communion with, eating a feast when so many in the world have so little, looking up at the Milky Way, every night, and watching falling stars millions of miles away, that fell long ago, my eyes only seeing it tonight, on this night.  Well, it is hard to say all of the pain is not worth being part of all of that.

I give you a picture of the hat I wore each day of the Camino in July and on every day of this hike too.

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“You wouldn’t believe what once or twice I have seen. I’ll just tell you this: only if there are angels in your head will you ever, possibly, see one.”

— Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver by Mary Oliver.

As the days go on on this hike, you begin to find your traveling partners.  They are those who move at your pace, seem to understand the rhythms of the walk, most like you.   In the last few days that person was Canon Andrea McMillan of Northern California, but as many of you know, from the Diocese of Olympia, and before all of that, and this, from the Diocese of Arkansas, like me and with me, so many years ago.  We have known each other a long time, and have walked together in various ways, but this was a special one.  I was blessed to have her as a companion on those miles in that beautiful place.   She summed it all up in a text to us afterward.

She wrote:  “What did I learn?   One step at a time.  Small breaks make it possible.  Always stop to breathe.  Walk with a friend.  Ask for what you need.  Laugh.  Be amazed.  Don’t worry if the gang is walking at a different speed and I am not part of them, I am seeing things that can only be seen at my pace, in quiet.  That is holy space.”  

Indeed it was. On one of our turns on the last day we ran across two mountain grouse, a male and female I am pretty sure.  We were amazed how close we could get to them, and then that they walked beside us for a good 10 minutes, down the trail. We surmised they were really curious or were leading us away from their nest, making sure we were going.  Either way it was a real treat.  It makes me wish to end this with some wisdom from Mary Oliver.   Blessings everyone.  One step at a time.  Laugh. Be amazed.

On the last day, in our last few miles we took the famous Mist Trail, from Nevada Falls, which sits at about 7000 feet, and we walked down, to the valley, at about 4000 feet, so a big drop, but a beautiful one.  I end with a video of Vernal Falls, half way down this route and a host of a few more pictures, which as beautiful as they are do not capture the actuality of the view.   And finally, with one more poem of Mary Oliver, which sums up my feelings on the other side of this latest pilgrimage.

STORAGE 

When I moved from one house to another there were many things I had no room for. 

What does one do? I rented a storage space. And filled it. Years passed. 

Occasionally I went there and looked in, but nothing happened, not a single twinge of the heart. 

As I grew older the things I cared about grew fewer, but were more important. 

So one day I undid the lock and called the trash man. He took everything. 

I felt like the little donkey when his burden is finally lifted. Things! Burn them, burn them! Make a beautiful fire! 

More room in your heart for love, for the trees! For the birds who own nothing—the reason they can fly.”

— Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver by Mary Oliver

“You wouldn’t believe what once or twice I have seen. I’ll just tell you this: only if there are angels in your head will you ever, possibly, see one.”

— Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver by Mary Olive

As the days go on on this hike, you begin to find your traveling partners.  They are those who move at your pace, seem to understand the rhythms of the walk, most like you.   In the last few days that person was Canon Andrea McMillan of Northern California, but as many of you know, from the Diocese of Olympia, and before all of that, and this, from the Diocese of Arkansas, like me and with me, so many years ago.  We have known each other a long time, and have walked together in various ways, but this was a special one.  I was blessed to have her as a companion on those miles in that beautiful place.   She summed it all up in a text to us afterward.

She wrote:  “What did I learn?   One step at a time.  Small breaks make it possible.  Always stop to breathe.  Walk with a friend.  Ask for what you need.  Laugh.  Be amazed.  Don’t worry if the gang is walking at a different speed and I am not part of them, I am seeing things that can only be seen at my pace, in quiet.  That is holy space.”

Indeed it was. On one of our turns on the last day we ran across two mountain grouse, a male and female I am pretty sure.  We were amazed how close we could get to them, and then that they walked beside us for a good 10 minutes, down the trail. We surmised they were really curious or were leading us away from their nest, making sure we were going.  Either way it was a real treat.  It makes me wish to end this with some wisdom from Mary Oliver.   Blessings everyone.  One step at a time.  Laugh. Be amazed.

Yosemite5

STORAGE 

When I moved from one house to another there were many things I had no room for. 

What does one do? I rented a storage space. And filled it. Years passed. 

Occasionally I went there and looked in, but nothing happened, not a single twinge of the heart. 

As I grew older the things I cared about grew fewer, but were more important. 

So one day I undid the lock and called the trash man. He took everything. 

I felt like the little donkey when his burden is finally lifted. Things! Burn them, burn them! Make a beautiful fire! 

More room in your heart for love, for the trees! For the birds who own nothing—the reason they can fly.”

— Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver by Mary Oliver