“Where’s Your Shoes?” An Urban Spiritual Practice

It was a hot August afternoon some years ago.  I was walking home from work at the hospital when a minivan pulled up behind and started following me.

I was barefoot.

I’d pulled off my shoes and socks as soon as I’d walked out the revolving door at the hospital entrance, stuffed them in my daypack, and stepped off the pavement into the damp earth and cool grass.  I’d been enjoying the instant grounding sensation and feeling like a natural human being again, blinking in real sunlight after a long day walking hospital corridors under fluorescent lights.  Now I could smell the land and hear the birds again.

And now I was being followed by a minivan in broad daylight.

Excuse me, sir?”  The driver motioned me to the window.  A woman.

I looked around.  Women never call out to me from vehicles.

Do you need some shoes?” she said.

“What?” I said.  “No, thank you.”

I have some right here,” she said, “They’re almost new.

“No, I don’t need any shoes.”

Really, its no problem!  I’d like to give them to you!

“I have shoes in my backpack,” I said.  “Thank you.”

They are too big for my son, but I’m sure they’d fit you!

“I’m fine, really, thank you.”

But you don’t have any shoes!

“I don’t want any shoes,” I said.  “I like walking barefoot.”

The woman gave me a blank look.  The blank look changed to an expression of deep concern.  Then discomfort.

She drove off.

Hello.  My name is Jeff.  (Hi Jeff.)  I’m a barefoot walker.   I’m also a barefoot runner, but that’s another story.

Walking barefoot has revealed a lot to me about the hidden rules of American culture.  Rule 74: You have the right to bear arms (a whole truckload of them if you feel the need), text while driving, listen to talk radio, and other crazy stuff.  But you do not have the right to walk barefoot in the city.  I’m serious.  Try it sometime.  See what happens.

Here are a few of the actual reactions I’ve received when walking barefoot in my own neighborhood:

  • “Hey mister, where’s your shoes?”  (Neighborhood kids.)
  • “Doesn’t that hurt?”  (A woman in high heels.)
  • “Don’t you step on glass?”  (No.  And yes.   See below.)
  • “The ground is dirty.”  (There are a hundred thousand more bacteria per square inch on your kitchen sink sponge than on the ground.  Seriously.  You can look it up.)
  • “Eww!  Gross!”  (Teenager with piercings on face and other body parts.)
  • “My feet are too ugly to go barefoot.” (Women say this.)
  • A mother watches me suspiciously as I walk past her toddler on the sidewalk.   The toddler is wearing fifty-dollar Stride Rite shoes.  The toddler smiles at me.  The mother does not.

Only one person got it.  An elderly black woman was dragging a trash barrel to the curb and she straightened up and watched me approach.  She looked at my feet, smiled and gave me a knowing look .  “Mmm hmm,” she nodded, “I know about that.”  My heart instantly opened to this total stranger just because of our simple, and rare, understanding of the joys of connecting physically with the earth. 

I began walking barefoot many years ago.  I was reading Zen Heart by Ezra Bayda, in which he shared a short walking meditation from the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.    You recite it to yourself while walking very slowly, at a wandering-the-park pace:

“As I walk the mind will wander/ With each sound the mind returns/ With each breath the heart is open/ With each step I touch the earth.”*  (Repeat)

This meditation does it all: it 1. returns your  mind to the present moment;  2. opens your heart; and 3. gets you grounded.  Since I had ridden my bicycle to work that day I pushed as I walked barefoot on the way home.  And I began slowly repeating,  “As I walk/ the mind will wander…”    

When I got to the last line, “With each step/ I touch the earth,” I felt the earth directly underneath my right foot push up slightly to meet my foot.  Then it rose ever so gently to meet my left foot.  Right foot (earth pushhhing up underneath it)…left foot (earth pushhhing up underneath it)… repeat.

I was stunned.   For those brief moments, with each step I felt met by the Earth.  Supported.  Not metaphorically but literally.  Literally held up.  As in, I was walking in the same old street — along the curb on Lindsey Ave. amidst the beer bottles and ubiquitous Newport Menthol cigarette packages — but under all that battered asphalt, iron manholes, and heaving concrete awaited …the Earth.  Ancient and alive, it seemed.

I looked around.  Had anyone noticed me standing stock-still in the street holding my bicycle?  I was a bit self conscious because people have a low tolerance for contemplation around here.  For example, I once was down on my knees looking at a tiny blue flower poking through the sidewalk.  When I looked up several people were staring at me unsure whether to call the police or an ambulance.  Which is a little annoying, frankly, since folks around here saunter, strut, shout and curse at the top of their lungs in the middle of the street all the time.  That’s considered acceptable.  What’s not acceptable normal is a white guy in dress pants standing in the the street looking at his feet.

Anyway, I was hooked.  The next day I left the bicycle at home.  I had recently read Born to Run, the 2009 bestseller that sparked a shoeless revolution in the running world.  So after work I peeled off my shoes and socks for the walk home.   My tender, overprotected, pale soles met real asphalt, brick, pebbles and concrete-  ooch eech ouch– and the first hundred yards were an explosion of with sensation and stimulation.

But then a funny thing happened.  The hypersensitivity of my tender feet seemed to go way down, as if my brain was adjusting the volume of sensory signals down to a more reasonable level.  After several minutes the tenderness largely went away.  I began to recite the walking meditation and experienced the same earth-rising-to-meet-my-feet.  But in bare feet I experienced particular textures, objects, temperatures and dry/dampness.

This kind of present-moment focus is exactly the consciousness sought by meditators and contemplatives worldwide.  The thisness of the moment.  This concrete is rough and hard.  That grass is cool and soft.  This sandy-gravelly alley dirt is also hard but…hmm, softer.  That sidewalk in October is cold, this asphalt in July is hot, but the grass in any month is comfortable and welcoming.  (Try barefoot walking on grass the morning after a frost.  Wow.)

Perhaps you are thinking, yes.  I know all this.  Concrete is hard, grass is soft.  Big whoop.  But you don’t actually experience it, do you?  Anymore?  The difference between mere knowledge and actual direct experience is like, Oh look!  A mud puddle to stomp in.  (Mud skooshes between my toes.)  God, I haven’t done this since I was nine years old!  Childlike, yes.  But even more than that, as an adult.  More consciousness, of  connecting directly with Mother Earth.

In seminary days I learned that the biblical name “Adam” in Genesis comes from adamah, ancient Hebrew for earth.  The “Adam” in Genesis (from the Hebrew, ha adam) translates straightforwardly as earth-creature.  I.e. “Adam” was not the given social name of a guy whose girlfriend was Eve.  Rather, it was a description of his nature.  His creaturehood under the Creator.

And that’s what I’m trying to get at here.  Barefoot walking is not just some quirky  physical fitness practice.  It’s a simple but heart-opening spiritual practice that uses our feet as connective soul-bridges between body, mind, and planet Earth.  Specifically, barefoot walking with mindfulness raises consciousness.  And raising consciousness in urban life is critical to sustaining the planet.

Okay.  I wrote this not just to share my enjoyment of barefoot walking, but also to address three common reactions I get from people to barefoot walking (and barefoot running).

Don’t you step on glass/nails?   

1.  No.   Because when you walk barefoot you have to watch where you’re walking.  You really have to pull your attention atoms back into your body and concentrate on your surroundings.  This is the essence of spiritual mindfulness practice.  Presence.  “Just this.”  Not chatting on the cell, planning a meeting, thinking about dinner, or complaining about your boss.   2.  Yes.  I do occasionally step on  sharp or hard objects.  Here in the inner city I probably step on tiny pieces of glass all the time.  But here’s the thing: when you walk barefoot regularly, your feet get tougher.  You don’t get cut by the little stuff.  So you see the pattern here.  Tender, shod feet stay weak and flaccid and vulnerable.  Bare feet get stronger and tougher and more resilient.

(Disclosure: I do stub my toes from time to time when trail running barefoot in the woods.  I’ve had to learn to pick my feet up as I run on the ever-changing terrain, after a lifetime of dull walk-shuffling habits on utterly flat roads and sidewalks.  And know that it’s very important to ease slowly into a barefoot lifestyle, particularly with running.  The body can adapt to almost anything…over time.)

Our bodies have a natural immune system that existed long before antibiotics and big Pharma.  Similarly, we have a natural foot-protection system that existed long before orthotics and padded shoes.   For example, when I’m running trails and accidentally step on a hard unseen root or sharp stone my foot instinctively releases tension and collapses over the stone like a pizza dough dropped over a rock and at the same time my weight shifts to the other foot to carry my body weight through the rest of the step so I don’t fall over.  This split-second correction is local: it occurs at the level of the foot itself, not up in my brain.  I know that my “mind” has nothing to do with it because it happens so fast.  But wearing padded shoes deactivates this localized foot-intelligence and results in dull-minded weak feet.

The modern foot is just sad.  Spending most its life in what one barefoot colleague calls “plastic foot coffins” (shoes) our feet are like those feeble egg-industry chickens that live their entire flightless lives in wire cages existing only to lay thin-shelled eggs for us and then die.  Some life.

Conversely, the most amazing feet I’ve ever seen were those of a hospital patient I worked with, a Ugandan woman recently arrived in the U.S.  Her barefoot village lifestyle gave her powerful, splayed, muscular toes, calves of steel, and soles so thick she could walk on gravel with a load of water or firewood on her head that would cripple most Americans.  Yet her feet were not hard, cracked, injured or scaly.  They were pliable, lustrous, alive and beautiful.

The worst feet I’ve seen?  Every day, actually, as a massage therapist in the hospital and private practice.  The grotesque, pale, inflamed, blistered, bone-skewed joints I see in American women’s feet after years of walking in dress shoes and heels.  That‘s weird.  Not barefoot walking.

BTW: There is an entire field of effective body/energy work called reflexology that involves pointed pressure to the soles of the feet.  You’ve heard about this.  As a massage therapist clients ask me about reflexology all the time: Do I believe in it?   Does it work?   Sure it works.  But you don’t have to pay a certified Reflexologist to experience deep sole-work.  Just try walking around barefoot for a while on varying surfaces.  Its a free reflexology session from Mother Earth.

Won’t you hurt your feet?/  I have bad feet.  In the bestseller Born to Run, author Christopher McDougall visits the Tarahumara, an indigenous Mexican people known for their mythic ability to run distances of 100 miles or more wearing only thin sandals.**  By comparison, McDougall notes the explosion of U.S. foot, knee and hip injuries since the 1970’s, when Nike began marketing the first padded “waffle shoes” to runners.   These new heel-lifting shoes altered the gait of runners by forcing an unnatural heel-strike landing that sends a whopping hammer impact from the heel all the way up the skeleton to the skull with each step.  We consider this whap-whap gait normal now, having forgotten how lightly we ran on the balls of our feet as children in bare feet.

McDougall’s message: if you want to heal foot injuries, take your shoes off.   Allow your feet to use all the available structures (26 bones, 33 joints, and more than a hundred muscles, tendons and ligaments) for walking and running.  Allow the full power of your evolved calf muscles to smoothly lower your heels to the ground with each step, and pick them up for the next step.

Here’s a barefoot testimonial from one of my massage clients, Kathy RN:

“I tried varous podiatric treatments for 3 years, but was never able to get free from the pain of an old stress fracture. Out of desperation, I decided to shed my stiff, supportive shoes and orthotics and give barefoot shoes a try.  I did need to carefully wean into wearing the barefoot shoes, but within two weeks I was wearing them for my twelve-hour shifts as a nurse, and the pain that had been my constant companion was gone!  I have since worn them at work and at home, and am very happy with the results. When I wear barefoot shoes, I am lighter on my feet, more aware of the surfaces I am walking on, and feel more steady. I am so glad that I tried this style of shoe.”

“But I have high arches,” you say?  Good!  So do I.  The arch is the foot’s natural shock absorber: the higher, the better.  An arch is the strongest structural design known to builders from Ancient Rome to the St. Louis Arch.  The stone blocks of a well-built archway, or the snow blocks of a family-sized Eskimo igloo do not even need connective mortar to work.  Yet the best way to weaken an arch?  Push it up from below (i.e. arch “supports”).

Perhaps you are beginning to see the power of the shoe industry to bend common sense and even biomechanical function right out of our lives.  Fortunes are made on both shoe sales and the treatment of painful, injured feet.  Nobody is making money on strong and healthy feet.  A “high” arch is a problem only for the ill-fitting standardized products of the  dress-and-athletic shoe companies.

But I Might Step on… the Earth

There’s a deeper question in all this barefoot talk, I think.  The issue is not, won’t I step on something painful or icky.  The deeper question is, won’t I step on the Earth?   The conventional shoes that mask our bodies’ feeling and function also disconnect us from the earth.  We do not think about this, working in our offices behind non-opening windows, perched high above the earth in steel-girder structures encased in concrete.  We sleep and move in climate controlled homes and vehicles where we have to look at an instrument to know the temperature outside.  There’s more of a submarine or spaceship about our lifestyles today than mother nature, it seems.

Conversely, there’s something primal, damp, sensual and connective about walking on the earth.   Something of mystery.  This is the thing I love most about it: it redirects my abstract concerns.  It plugs my attention into something much greater and more live-giving than the ridiculous flock of worries my mind generates.

I stumble out of my back door in the morning, half in the dream world of the night before and half in the storm of anxieties about my day ahead.   But the minute I get my feet on the ground in the backyard?  Bam.  Here!  Now!  Aho!   Plugged into real time.  The flock of mental distractions disappear and then there I am, surrounded by What’s Really Going On: a rising sun, a biting wind, a cloudy sky, barking alley dogs, redbud blossoms, dew, snow, frost, the damn woodchuck eating my flowers, unmowed grass.  Mushrooms over here; dog turds over there.  I’m alive, in nature and participating in it.  Just another creature, ha adam.  Connected to the Source like all the other creatures above and below.

We get so alienated from the natural world that we can forget how to recognize a close friend when it is lying right under our feet.   We are like some of my inner city neighbors who never come outside or answer their door, isolated behind covered windows and receiving their information only from television and telephones.

We’re at a real crossroads now with mother earth, and need to change our relationship to her.  Recycling newspapers and buying hybrid cars isn’t going to do it, because the mindset behind these well-intended changes still treats the planet as a commodity, a sort of gravel pit of resources for humans to plunder. 

We don’t need different, more efficient ways to continue pillaging the planet for energy and resources.  We need different humans.  A more evolved humanity that sees the ecological and spiritual implications of living as creatures in a much greater web of life all around us.

Fortunately, the treatment for our nature-dissociation is right underneath our feet.  Reconnecting with the earth from which our food comes, the four legged and the many legged, the winged ones, the waters, the mineral spirits, the life.  When you open an I-Thou relationship with the earth, you learn there’s a lot more underfoot than glass and bacteria.

Yes, there is a lot of trash and trauma on the surface of our wounded planet.  And this is painful and necessary to experience firsthand with every barefoot step.  But there is also a living spiritual connection to our Source there, and all our relations.  That real estate out there?  It can heal you.

So.  Take your shoes off, go for a slow walk, and prepare to be amazed.

(Thanks for leaving a comment below – click the”Comments” link if necessary.  -J)

*Ezra Bayda, Zen Heart: Simple Advice for Living With Mindfulness and Compassion (Shambhala, 2009)

See also: Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life (Bantam, 1992)

**Christopher McDougal, Born to RunA Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen (Knopf, 2009)

The Cricket in My Basement, and Merton

Every fall a single cricket manages to get into my basement.

This is amazing, because our ancient, Michigan-style basement is like an encased stone vault with cobwebs and a coal room.  I have no idea how a cricket finds its way from the outdoors down into the basement through a foot-thick stone foundation wall, here in my inner city neighborhood in South Bend.  But there it is again, in my quiet house.  Chirp Chirp Chirp Chirp.

A field cricket (L. Gryllus)

The arrival of the basement cricket signals the end of summer for me.  It only shows up in mid- to late August, when the weather is still warm.  As if the cricket  knows what’s coming and will need to find dry, safe, and warm accommodations for later on.

The cricket always starts out strong.  On the warmest, most humid late summer evenings, it’s a raucous CHIRPCHIRPCHIRPCHIRPCHIRP all night long.  Full volume, singing its heart out.  It’s an amazing, piercing, simple, yet charming one-note song and I’ve never been able to understand how an insect the size of a paper clip can generate that much sound just by rubbing two dry wings together.  Only nature could come up with that.

As the days wear on into fall, the cricket gets quieter.  Chirp.  Chirp.  Chirp.  It (he) is still down there, belting out its song for…well, for whom?  For her?  His hoped-for mate?  Out of compulsion?  Out of joy?  Can any other crickets even hear him?  Are there any female crickets down there with him?  He sure is persistent.  The days get shorter, the nights gets longer, but the cricket plays on.  More modestly now.  Chirp.  Chirp.  Chirp.

One evening in mid-October, I notice that the cricket sounds weaker.   I walk over to the top of the basement stairs, and stare down into the dark.  How are you doing, buddy?  Are you getting tired?  Hungry?  Lonesome?    Chirp.          Chirp.         Chirp.    I’m a little worried about the cricket.  I wish I could feed it or something.

The morning of October 26th I’m sitting at the kitchen island in silence.  Regina and the girls are off to work and school.  It’s just me, a bowl of granola, and the newspaper.  I don’t want to look at the newspaper.   And then I hear,

                                   chirp.                           chirp.                         chirp.

The cricket sounds really tired.   Like its batteries are almost dead.  I can hear it, but only because the house is quiet.                        

                                                              chirp…                            chirp…

And then after a long wait, nearly holding my breath, silence.

* * *

A few weeks ago I made a long-desired trip southward to Kentucky to visit Gethsemani Abbey, the Trappist monastery situated in the rolling hills and wooded knobs south of  Bardstown.  It was the home of the late Trappist monk, writer, and activist Thomas Merton.

At Gethsemani, a conservative Roman Catholic religious order with roots in the middle ages, the monks live under a vow of silence, community prayer, work and strict isolation from the world.  No outside news comes in, and no writing goes out.  But Merton’s abbot, as the story goes, recognized his gift for spiritual writing early on and breaking with centuries of monastic tradition, the abbot allowed (actually ordered) Merton to write and publish.  And later on he allowed Merton to move into a private hermitage out in the woods on the smileAbbey property, another break with strict tradition.

The rest is history: Merton, through the paradox of writings composed in complete solitude, became a semi-reluctant spiritual rock star for an entire  generation of seekers in the 1950’s and 60’s.  He was visited by poets, writers, spiritual leaders, artists and activists (Joan Baez for godsakes).  He became a known voice of peace, social justice and spiritual clarity in the upheaval of the Cold War and Viet Nam.  Young men read his writings and lined up at abbey gates to join the monastic life.  Merton’s autobiographical first book, Seven Story Mountain (1948) continues to sell to this day and was single-handedly responsible for my leaving the legal profession and entering Catholic lay ministry back in the 1980s.

During my own stay last week at Gethsemani, I found Merton’s grave.  It’s marked by a simple, undistinguished iron cross with hundreds of other simple, undistinguished iron crosses in a lumpy little knoll next to the abbey church.  The only thing that distinguished Merton’s grave from the others was a little splay of plastic flowers, and several prayer-bead bracelets draped over his cross.  A small steel plate on the cross reads, Fr. Louis Merton.  Died Dec. 10, 1968.

I stood there quite a long time, fascinated.  Unsettled, actually.  I walked away.  I came back.  I did this like, four times during my weekend at the Abbey.  Here he was: the monk that even his abbot knew couldn’t be quieted, now quieted forever.  Silent as the once-noisy cricket down in my basement.  I stood there gazing at that lumpy little non-celebrity grave.  Knowing the monks are traditionally lowered directly into the bare earth with no vault or casket nearly took my breath away.

Suddenly, BONGGG.  I nearly jumped.  The abbey church bell high above my head clanged. Again.  And again.  The bell was calling the monks to midday prayer but had completely jolted me out of my thoughts.  Just like Merton’s earthy writings startled people out of their naive, conceptual, narrow assumptions about faith, “holiness”, sainthood, prayer, mysticism, and the spiritual life.  The bell’s intrusion could have been Merton himself, weary of my wistful past-directed ponderings and giving me a brotherly dope-slap aside the head.  Hey, dream boy.  Wake up.  What are you doing staring at graves?  Get out of here, for godssakes.  Go live your life!

* * *

I made the long drive back to South Bend thinking about monks, urban crickets, and the rare experience of any kind of solitude for us modern city dwellers, let alone a real monastery.  I thought about the field cricket singing out from the vault of my inner city basement- about as far as he could be from his natural habitat of a prairie field.  I thought about the paradox of the “famous hermit”, Merton, writing from the seclusion of the monastery, about as far as he could have gotten from his worldly European boyhood and his Columbia University days as a young man.  Singing his sacred song, to this day.

I thought about all the small, but captivating points of sound, of writing, of joy and of love that sneak down into our lives for a little while and sing and then go silent.  Chirping for us, or speaking to us.

They ask a quiet but insistent  question:  Who is this, that is hearing this chirp or reading this essay?  What is the music, what is the life, that aches to come alive in your own heart?  What are you doing staring at gravestones, TV screens, this essay, or whatever else you do to keep yourself in the trance, the dreamy sleepiness of secure but stagnant nonaction?

Years ago, I attended a retreat lead by one of Merton’s contemporaries, James Finley.  Finley had been a novice monk at Gethsemani Abbey as a young man, and was assigned to Merton for routine supervision and spiritual support.  Finley, like Merton, has a sharp mind, a quick wit, and an impish sense of humor.  But he described himself back then as very sincere, perhaps too sincere, a young man very earnest about the spiritual life and in complete awe of Merton as the world-famous writer-monk-theologian.  One day Finley sought out Merton to ask him about something that had been troubling his young heart, about the whole matter of death and life after death and the resurrection of the body and soul and the various Catholic religious teachings on these matters.

“What do you think happens to us after we die?” Finley asked Merton, with all the quiet seriousness and deep piety that only a novice monk can summon.  “What do you think about the Kingdom of Heaven?”

Merton burst into laughter.  “Well one thing’s for sure,” he said to the young monk.  “There sure won’t be much of you there!”

Finley was taken aback, saved only by the twinkle in Merton’s eye.  Only slowly did Finley come to understand the brilliant mastery of Merton’s single, koan-like response.  A response that completely punctured the pious religiosity and self-important ego-identification the young novice brought to the monastery, like all his peers.  The outer shell of social identity and psychological security that had  been seeking some kind of escape into purity, solitude, mystical oneness with the Divine, whatever.  All that needed to die, Merton was saying.  And was going to die, in fact.  So, get over yourself, young monk.  The sooner the better.

At that same retreat I attended with Finley he said something I have thought about often in my life since.  He was talking about the universal human condition, our mortality, and all the crazy things we do to avoid thinking about that and living as if we were something special because we were good, or religious, or hard-working, whatever.  “Look,” he said, “our horses are all hitched to a hole six feet in the ground.” And he went on to talk about the urgency we should thus be feeling about getting it right: our perceptions, our consciousness, as we live our daily lives.  And then Finley sat there behind his desk and grinned and watched all us pious, earnest, spiritual seekers squirm a little in our seats with the vivid, grounding, inescapable truth that we would all be skeletons some not so distant day.   Just in case we thought we were special.  Or immortal.

So here’s to two of my favorite spiritual directors.  The cricket in my basement, and the famous hermit Merton, who has been one of my own most helpful, persistent,  and delightful guides.  I am grateful for his writings, the twinkle in his religious eye, and his reminders of our sacred nature when we get too caught up by our mortal package.  His good-hearted wisdom shows up at just the right time in my life, at the darnedest times, while my own horses draw me closer to the great portal of nothing that is also the portal of everything.

Terlingua Desert Log #4. Solitude, and the Super Bowl

I didn’t expect to be invited to a Super Bowl party while living in a trailer in the Chihuahuan Desert. It messes up the story I was going to tell you, about what it’s like living off the grid with no cell phone signal, no Facebook, and no idea what Donald Trump is throwing at the TV cameras today.

IMG_7615But then here comes my landlady, Lori. “Woo hoo,” she yells whenever she’s approaching my trailer. “Woo hooooo!” Texans apparently don’t like to sneak up on people, or get snuck up on. I figure that has to do with either the uncertain location of rattlesnakes, or the fact that everybody has guns. “Oh, I’ve got a bunch of guns,” Lori chortled with her raspy smoker’s laugh. The ground around my trailer is littered with tarnished .30-06 rifle casings, .22 shells, shotgun shells. Mostly from Lori’s teenage son, doing target practice over the years.

Anyways, Lori came over last Saturday to invite me to the Super Bowl party on Sunday, at her trailer. I looked around at the vacant high desert all around us. “Party?” I said. “Yeah!” she said, “we’re going to barbeque! Dale’s coming down from his camper IMG_7541up there—“ she pointed to a small RV parked halfway up the mountain, “–and my son Rusty’s driving down from Alpine, and Jerry’s coming up from the canyon over there.” I had seen Jerry’s place through my binoculars from high up on ridge, a speck of tin nestled back up the foothills. I’m slowly getting the drift out here. What my urban eyes first perceived as uninhabited wilderness is, to the folks who live here, the neighborhood. Everybody knows everybody else within miles and mountain ranges. Which isn’t a lot of people, but it’s some.  Lori used to work at the Cottonwood General Store in Study Butte, so she has  met every resident in the county.

Still, most days I’m not getting invited to parties. When I don’t make the hour-long drive into town days can go by where I don’t see or hear anyone. I still marvel at the silence. When the air is still, you can hear a twig snap a thousand yards off. I’ve heard one airplane, a little Cessna, passing low over the distant hills a week ago.

You can really go primitive out here, if you want. If you’re looking to buy land the first thing you get asked is, “On or off the grid?” Prices vary accordingly. If you just want some acres to call your own, its available, and relatively cheap. Ranchland in the remote areas is going for 400. to 500. an acre. Want a well? Road access? Electric line? You pay more. A typical listing in the local real estate flyer reads, “926 acres in Pecos County, 1 water well with solar pump, cattle pens and small barn, new fences, large neighboring ranches, abundant wildlife, 1,200/acre.” No matter where you buy, you’ll have mountain views that just shut you up. The various For Sale descriptions tell it all. “Longdraw Bluff Line…solid road access, Study Butte…Chisos Mountains view…Solitario…8 miles north of Terlingua Ranch, Gate 2, via South County Rd…2 access routes…Great Hunting Location! Nine Point Draw 40 acres off grid…Fossil Knob, good access, bunkhouse, 2 steel buildings, water catchment, elevated porch, toward mountains, exceptional view… Stunning view… Excellent water potential…”

IMG_7526Water potential. That’s an artful way of putting it. Most days in Brewster County, Texas, there is not a cloud in the blue sky. Lori says they went for 17 months without rain a few years ago, a drought that actually killed a lot of the cactus and lechugilla. Too dry for cactus. A big thunderstorm might come through up in the Chisos or Los Caballo Muertes, that sends flash floodwaters into the surrounding river beds and arroyos yet leaves the rest of the land dry. So most people have “water catchment systems”, simple PVC pipes that divert occasional rainfall off the corrugated roofs into giant rainbarrel storage tanks. If you don’t catch rain, or have a deep well, you pay to have water hauled in.

Rain or not, this vast and beautiful landscape is slowing me down, a real accomplishment. Every morning the sun blazes up over the ridge to the east, flooding my trailer with a pure light energy and IMG_7462illuminating the yellow stove next to my pullout bed. My mind begins its morning harassment ritual. Get up! Hurry! What needs to be done next? I think about that… Long pause… Hey, wait. Nothing. But my mind doesn’t like this one bit, and releases a torrent of negative self-talk. “Nothing”? Oh really? That sounds unproductive. Isn’t that selfish? A slippery slope into sloth and depravity? I get up, unsteady in my whole purpose now, and stumble outside the trailer like a man beset by hornets. But the landscape and the slight aroma of creosote brings me back to my body, senses, and surroundings. I find my hand drum, and as I thump out a steady beat in the morning sun the hornets disappear, replaced by IMG_7467gentle breeze and a different voice from a much deeper place. Good morning. You are alive. This day is given to you. Treat it like the first day of your life.  What would you like to do with this one precious day? Hmm.

The experience out here has been like a slow detox from a harmful substance, and the substances are busyness and overstimulation. Its takes a while, even in the solitude of the desert, and the detox is not pleasant at first. I came out here with an armload of hiking and biking maps for the Parks, two bicycles (road and mountain), a laptop, books to read, writing projects, and half-finished work projects. Good grief. I’m alone in the desert with no commitments for several weeks and what am I doing? Running around, just like at home. I’m reminded of my massage clients who often return from “vacations” exhausted, sleep deprived, and tense in their low backs, necks, and shoulders from the long flights and driving. It’s as if we’re actually afraid to slow down. As if something really bad would happen. So instead of “va-cate” on vacation, we just change the venue of our running, our spending and our doing for a week or two. It’s quite a game.

IMG_7453Thankfully, nature heals us, if we give it a chance. And wilderness nature can do that very deeply, just by getting ourselves out into it. Slowly but surely, one day at a time, the detox is working on me here. The intervention is assisted by my nonhuman friends all around me. Breathe, says the cactus. Be, say the Corazon mountains. Move slowly and with great focus, says the unseen rattlesnake. Be grateful for water, says the whole desert. Watch. Listen. Eat. Sleep. Walk. Pray. Wash my plate, cup and fork. Rinse out my socks.  Hang the shirt up to dry. Let the sun and wind dry the laundry.

Its not a new problem.  Even our indigenous ancestors needed help slowing down and refocusing. In the AmerIndian vision quest ceremony, individuals spent 2-4 days alone in the wilderness fasting completely from food and  water. This quieted the mind and opened the heart allowing a vision for one’s life to arises, with deep clarity on essence and purpose. Key characters in the Bible go out alone into the desert, and dramatic things happen that do not happen back in town. Moses meets Yahweh on a desert mountain, and discovers the ground under his feet is holy. (It has been holy all along.) Jesus leaves the crowds to out into the wilderness to pray, rather often.  Out in the desert he meets with both Spirit, and Temptation. The desert IMG_7477fathers of the early Christian church withdrew into wilderness for their entire lives, laying the foundations for later monastic traditions.

Living in a desert trailer does not equal a vision quest ceremony, a biblical encounter with the Divine, or a strict monastic life. But it’s a pretty good start. Sooner or later you’re going to have to deal with yourself, which includes the anxieties, compulsions, and empty distractions. My teachers out here have been patient, and insistent: the gentle spirits of cactus, of rock, of wind.  And that damned rattlesnake out there, wherever he is.

So do get out to the desert some time. It will slow you down, bring you to yourself, and open your heart. And if you’re lucky, you might even get invited to a Super Bowl party.

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