St. Mary’s Wilderness Journal #1

St. Mary's Wilderness sign
wanderingVirginia.com

It was a mostly wet couple of days with the trees, rhododendrons, and creatures of St. Mary’s Wilderness in the George Washington National Forest in western Virginia. But of course God, or Great Spirit as our native teachers in this land might say, is present no matter the weather. So I learned some important lessons–and I am grateful I went, despite, or  perhaps because of, some real challenges. Over the next few weeks, I will share some of the challenges and lessons, or medicine, as Native people might say, I received. Here is the first installment.

I drove from Maryland into Virginia on Tuesday, September 29–after talking to the good folks at REI (Recreation Equipment Inc.), my gurus about outdoor life, about how to put up my tent in a downpour–only to discover when I arrived that torrential rains, almost blinding sheets of moisture at times, made it impossible to hike in and get a camp set up that day. So I spent an uneventful first night at a motel in Waynesboro.

Lesson: Sometimes with nature it is best to lie low, recognizing that the forces of the universe are greater than me.

2015-09-30 09.08.01
author photo

Wednesday dawned dryer–meaning not raining–so I headed off to the wilderness, and found my way to the Bald Mountain Overlook at Mile 22 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. There I parked my car, loaded the pack on my back (did it really weigh sixty pounds?), and walked up Forest Service Road 162 for about a mile until locating the Bald Mountain Trail. Down that trail for most of a mile–pretty steep at times, hard on my right knee, but still a usable trail–across a creek twice until I came to a lovely small clearing in the woods very near the creek. Due to the rain, the creek was running strong and I knew I could use it as a water source (with filtering, of course).

2015-09-30 09.08.57Setting up camp took several hours. I had not done this entirely on my own before, so it took awhile. Several hours later, however, I had a tent erected, sleeping bag unfolded, a tarp in an adjacent area as a place to sit near the creek, and a bag of food hanging in a tree.

St. Mary's Wilderness Pilgrimage 085
author photo

Lesson: in putting up the tarp and the food bag, I realized I needed to have asked more questions to the good folks at REI. Where to put the tarp would have been a good start!  As to the food bag, I realized I had just nodded to the nice man at REI when he told me to toss a rope line over the limb of a tree where the bag could hang. I knew why to do it–keep the black bears and racoons from ravaging your food–but I was not sure how.

After a little thought, I realized I needed something heavy on the end of the line to toss over the limb. And I needed to find enough of an opening in the dense forest growth where I could toss the line without becoming all tangled in the wrong place. Finding a good spot (and it did work, ultimately, very well), I tied my Swiss Army Knife to the end of the line. That went over the limb just fine but given the force of my toss it just kept wrapping around the limb! I could not reach the end now. Ouch. And what about my knife? I was going to need that again!

I don’t know the physics of this (I don’t know the physics of anything really), but I was able, standing on the ground, to loosen the looped line on the limb enough to get it to unwind and come down. I untied the knife and put it in my pocket, and realized, somehow with my limited capacity for things mechanical, I needed something bigger and heavier than the knife for the end of the line. I tied a small, zipped bag of useful items  (whistle, compass, lighter, etc.) to the line and did another toss. Perfect. Whew!

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rhododendron, author photo

There is more about this line and the bag for a future post, but for now I will conclude by patting myself on the back for getting things set up. And I decided that since the rains had not yet returned (but they were coming, to be sure), it was time for a small hike sans pack.  How good it would feel to explore without that weight!

Lesson: Take a break and enjoy the beauty around you (rhododendron everywhere). .

More to come, as this pilgrim’s progress continues . . . . (maybe even a poem).

Once More, into Wilderness!

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A memory of my tent site in Yosemite last September–it will look very different this week in St. Mary’s Wildernness!

St. Mary’s Wilderness here I come!

It’s across the continent from Yosemite National Park, the vegetation and scenery are quite different, and the peaks are lower, but this 10,000 acres of eastern beauty in the George Washington National Forest is calling to me to repeat a little of the Vision Quest in that western gem I experienced one year ago.

This time, I will not have the onsite guiding hand of Tomas Pinkson, blessed shaman extraordinaire, but I remember much that he taught. And most of all, I remember his wisdom, and that of Gerald May and many others, about the power of wilderness to heal, empower, renew, and (re-)orient us. There is, as Tomas and the native peoples say, medicine here that Great Power has for me.

St. Mary's Wilderness sign
wanderingVirginia.com

On Tuesday, September 29, I will get in my car and drive into western Virginia, park my car in a designated parking area and hike a mile or two, I hope, or maybe more, seeing the sights, and finding a place to pitch my tent. I will be looking for a water source, too, although like any good wilderness hiker/camper, I will filter all water before using.

I am not on this adventure to hike as much as I am to find a spot in the wilderness for solitude, to sit and meditate, talk and listen to the trees and admire whatever may yet be blooming (probably not much) or beginning to show fall colors.

I go to reconnect with my siblings of the forest, wildlife yes (hopefully friendly) but mostly trees and other vegetation. I draw great strength and solace from the faithfulness of trees and shrubs and other plants who live without human aid.

St. Mary's Wilderness Liming_Sites_Map
csm.jmu.edu

Indeed, one of the complications about this is the need to be sure those of us who venture into these sacred grounds do not unduly disturb their living. The goal in the wilderness always is to leave no trace of our presence.

This brings to mind one essential spiritual practice, namely to listen and absorb without pressing our own agenda. When we walk and sit in the wild without having to make it ours we can learn that we are not the center of the universe. It is then we begin to receive the gifts that are there for us.

I discovered last year at Lower Cathedral Lake in Yosemite that if I look with truly open eyes and listen with truly open ears I can learn much–about myself, yes, as well as about the world, and certainly about those whose space I was sharing. There is a richness, a depth to this learning that can only be grasped in the midst of wilderness; no book, nor even picture, can convey its integrity and power the way actual presence does.

trails.com
trails.com

It may seem strange to write about this seeking of solitude on a blog focused on building community. But for me, solitude is a re-charging of my batteries and a re-orientation to my soul, so that I have energy and clarity in community building work. It also is a reminder that community is more than human.

2014-09-11 14.56.57That reminds me of my “brother tree,” from Yosemite (pictured left), who said to me, “You do not need to see me, but you do need to remember me, to learn from me.” So I go into the national forest here to keep alive that memory and to learn from his siblings in the East (you can read about my brother here). I realize that this will most likely become an annual pilgrimage, not to Yosemite probably most years (expense and currently much fire damage) but to some part of wonderful wilderness to reconnect with my spiritual roots in God’s earth.

In the lush forest growth of St. Mary’s Wilderness I do not expect to see many specimens like my brother. He grew, like his neighbors, out of the hard mountain granite; some grew stronger and taller but many were stunted and twisted like him. That any survive let alone thrive still amazes me. The tenacity of spirit is a badge of honor and an example of courage for all of us.

St. Mary's Wilderness
An opening in the lush growth of St. Mary’s Wilderness everytrail.com

At the same time, not even this place of beauty is immune from the hardness, even harshness, of nature. Hurricane Isabel did much damage in St. Mary’s Wilderness in 2003, leaving reminders of how fragile the wholeness of nature is. And much of the area was the scene of heavy mining for iron ore and manganese into the 1960s. Fortunately, designation as a national wilderness area in 1984 is helping reverse, in nature’s own good time, these impacts. I hope my presence is healing, too, not just for me but for all who call this home.

I check my list of things to do before I leave and things to take with me, and try to fit everything neatly for a balanced pack. I remember that I am a pilgrim on journey on land where others move and have their being, and pray I will be open to all the gifts, all the wisdom, all the medicine that will bless me.