Close Encounters of the Hiker Kind

Close Encounters of the Hiker Kind

Have you ever wondered about what motivates people to hike for miles into the wilderness, give up creature comforts, sleep in a tent, put up with mosquitoes, and brave unpredictable weather? I have. In fact, I wonder about this frequently! Usually, however, this kind of inner questioning comes to me just before I put on my backpack, and set out, once again, for some remote place in the mountains. On a particularly nippy morning last October, for example, I had an unusually strong dose of this kind of wondering. Along with 3 other hiking friends, Diane, Mark and Betty, I had spent the previous night at a motel near Yosemite National park. We got up early that morning and drove the spectacular mountain route across Tyoga pass to Bridgeport, California, a picturesque cowboy town, on the Eastern edge of the Sierras. We stopped briefly at the Bridgeport Ranger Station to get a wilderness permit, and then continued to the trail head. After rearranging several items in my pack and tightening all the straps, I heaved the pack carefully onto my knee and then to my back. I cinched down the waste band and shoulder straps, and turned toward the bright faces of my four friends, who had also dawned their packs, and were ready to go. In the next 8 days we would cover more than 50 miles together, crossing the Sierra mountain range on foot, through some of the most spectacular and rugged wilderness on earth. My 45 pound pack suddenly felt heavy as I thought about the steep switchbacks and high ridges we would have to navigate. “Too late to turn back now!”  I nervously joked to the others. Immediately the armchair psychologist within me kicked in, eloquently expressing the perennial question. “Why in the hell am I doing this!"  I groaned to myself.

The beginning of a hike, especially a long backpacking trip, almost always brings me a nervous sense of self doubt. I mostly wonder if I can handle the physical exertion and high altitudes. Hiking with weight on your back isn’t easy, especially above 8,000 feet, but over the years I have learned a few tricks that help me get in shape for mountain treks. I usually increase my exercise routine, especially hiking up hills, for a couple of months previous to a long trip. A couple of weeks before a trip, I load up my backpack and hike around in the hills near my home in Los Gatos. On this morning, as we started up the trail, I soon adjusted to the weight of the pack and found an easy pace. I could tell that my conditioning program had worked, and quickly felt my doubts begin to fade. After a mile of dense forest hiking in the chilly mountain air, we suddenly broke into a vast, sunny, alpine meadow which lay at the feet of the towering peaks of the Sierras. I managed to put some distance between me and my hiking companions and soon found myself completely alone, in the middle of a 3-mile long meadow filled with wild flowers and alpine grasses. I walked silently along the trail, looking ahead at the awesome granite peaks that lay in my path. I drew in a deep breath and, as I let it out, I could feel the stress and fast pace of the so called “civilized world" leave me. As if remembering some forgotten secret, “This is why I come here,” I thought.

At this point you might be wondering what my camping-trip story has to do with astrology. To be perfectly honest, in some ways it has absolutely nothing to do with astrology and may not really belong in an astrology newsletter. On the other hand, I have always thought that backpacking is the perfect metaphor for life. Not to use a cliché, but learning to be a “happy camper” is what life is all about as far as I am concerned. The horoscope shows “the path” an individual soul will tread in life. Sometimes the path is easy and sometimes difficult, but the whole point of astrology is to help a person meet the ups and downs of life with awareness and a happy attitude. Backpacking is the art of carrying your own baggage over undulating terrain, and simultaneously enjoying the scenery along the way. Learning to backpack simply makes a person better at living life!

Although there is no formal Back-packing remedial measure in the Vedic Astrology repertoire, it is a time honored technique in India. For thousands of years, Yogis have walked deep into the Himalayas, carrying only a few simple things, living for years in the deep silence of caves or forests. On my last trip to the Himalayas, for example, I met a great Yogi who is more than 110 years old (the subject of a future story) who has made continuous treks throughout his lifetime, through the Himalayan wilderness, in all kinds of weather, clad in nothing but a loin cloth. Even the common householder in India instinctively understands the value of taking long journeys, and annually goes on pilgrimages, frequently on foot, to visit remote shrines or temples. From ancient times, people from all parts of the world have been drawn to the mountains as a place which strips away excess, reveals the self, and forces one to rely on spirit alone.

As I reached the edge of that big alpine meadow, I couldn’t help but feel a kinship with all the yogis, adventurers, mountain climbers and naturalists from the past. A sense of exhilaration filled me has I started up a long set of switchbacks towards our first campsite, an alpine lake at 8000 feet. Along the way, I took a break, and waited for the others. We hiked the rest of the way together and made camp by dusk.

During the next three days we established our hiking routine, covering about 8 miles a day and reaching camp by about 3 p.m. The October weather was typical for this part of the Sierras, warm, sunny and bug free. We hiked in tee shirts and shorts. The trail along the way was one breathtaking vista after another, one waterfall after another, and each day was a day walking through a new mountain paradise.

On the 4th day, about 25 miles into the hike, we took a lay over day next to a lake. We each found spots to do laundry and to bathe along a creek which drained down from the lake. It was about 80 degrees that morning as I walked barefoot, hopping from stone to stone, for about a half a mile down the creek. Finally, I found a secluded pool, deep enough to sit in up to my neck, but shallow enough to be warmed by the afternoon Sun. “There is only one thing that beats hiking through the mountains,” I thought, “and that’s skinny dipping in a mountain stream!” I dropped my shorts, took off my shirt and entered nirvana.

Later that afternoon, one of my hiking companions, Diane, and I sat down in camp to talk astrology. I usually bring the charts of people I hike with along with me on these trips. Diane had never had an astrology reading, so I was initiating her into the language of the stars. I talked for a half an hour or so about her personality, career etc., and then I said, “Now let’s talk about relationships.” At that moment something caught my eye on the other side of the lake. There, lumbering along the meadow by the edge of the forest were two black bears, coming in our direction. “Look!” I said to Diane, pointing excitedly towards the bears. We both got up and watched the bears for a few minutes as they stopped and foraged by the lake and then continued towards us. “Quick, let's hang the food.”  Diane said, and we scrambled to get our food bags.

Now anybody who has ever backpacked in or around Yosemite National Park knows that you have to have a good strategy for protecting your food from bears, especially when you are three days from the nearest road. Yosemite bears are smart, especially when it comes to getting a backpackers food bag. The time- honored method for dealing with this has been to hang your food bags from a tall tree. While this method works, it only works if you have a very tall tree, a very long rope, and a little luck. With Yosemite bears, you need a lot of luck. These bears have been known to send there cubs up a tree and out onto a limb over which a backpacker’s food bags are hung. The cub breaks the limb and tumbles to the ground along with the bag, rope and branches. Then the mother and cub scramble off, bag in mouth, for an tasty afternoon snack.

On a previous trip, while camping at Rancheria Falls with my friend George, we made the mistake of hanging our food over a branch directly above our tent. It was a rainy night, so even though we knew this was a bad idea, we didn’t feel like getting soaked while looking for the perfect branch. In the middle of the night I suddenly woke up to the sound of branches snapping in the tree above. I could hear a bear, probably a cub, in the tree above us, trying to get our food. “George!"  I whispered as I shook him. George emerged begrudgingly from a deep sleep. “George!”  I said with an urgent tone, “There’s a bear above the tent in the tree." “What do you think we should we do?” George asked in groggy tone. “Well, if we stay here the bear could fall right on top of the tent,” I said. “On the other hand, if we run, we have to go out into the rain in our underwear. And if it is a bear cub that is up there, then the mother will not be far off. If we get in between the mother and her cub, accidentally, then we’re toast!” “Crack! Snap!” a small branch fell on our tent. I was seeing visions of that bear cub hurling through the air towards our tent. “Let's get out of here!” I said.  We grabbed our flashlights and darted out through the tent vestibule into the cold, rainy night, probing in every direction with the lights to see if the mother could be sighted. Not seeing her, we turned the flashlights towards the tree just in time to see the cub scrambling down from the tree to make his escape. Luckily, the only thing we lost was our dignity.

With this, and several other bear encounters etched in my mind, I quickly grabbed the food bags as Diane arranged the rope. Together, we counterbalanced 30 pounds of food, 10 feet in the air, and then returned to the edge of the meadow to look for the bears. “They’re gone!“ Diane said. We scanned the entire meadow around the lake and by the edge of the forest. “Better keep our eyes peeled,”  I said. "They might be headed in our direction. Bears can smell food miles away.”  We sat down on a log near the food bags, looking out at the lake. I returned to the astrology reading. “Omens have always been an important part of Vedic Astrology,"  I said. “We saw two bears at the exact moment that I changed the subject of your reading to the area of relationships. You will undoubtedly get into a relationship in the near future.”

Just then, Mark and Betty walked into the camp site after a day hike to a near-by lake. “Did you see the bears?” I asked. “Where?” Mark asked. Diane told them about the bears and we all speculated about the odds of outwitting the bears with our strung-up food bags. In Yosemite Valley, a mere 20 miles away, backpackers are not allowed to hang their food any more. Instead, they are required to carry bear canisters; bulky, heavy, bullet -proof metal containers that bears can’t penetrate. The park rangers tell story’s of bag-savvy bears performing miracles in order to get hanging food bags. In the past, campsites within the park were equipped with bear wires, pre-strung wires set high between two trees, over which backpackers could through a line and string up food. The bears, however, simply send up their cubs who, apparently having trained with Ringling Brothers, do a high-wire act that includes shinnying out on the wire and twanging the bag line until it breaks.

Although technically not inside the Yosemite Valley, we were inside the Yosemite National Forest. Everyone, except Diane, had encountered bears many times on other trips, with no mishaps. On those trips, however, we were always within a day’s hike from civilization. This time we were three days out, and in country where the bears make an art of outwitting hapless campers.

Mark changed the subject, “It sure is nice to hike this far into the wilderness,” he said. “We haven’t seen even one hiker since day one.” It was true. We were completely alone, camped on the Pacific Crest Trail, in a spectacular spot, surrounded by huge evergreens, a lake, a stream, eagles, bears, and deer. “This is one of the great benefits of doing such a remote hike,”  Mark said. At that moment, I saw something on the side of the meadow. Something was moving by the edge of the forest. Thinking it might be the two bears, I got up and took a few steps forward. Coming out of the forest, I could see a single hiker making a quick pace into the meadow. “It’s a hiker!” I said. Mark got up to take a look. “He’s hiking fast.” Mark said. We watched as he deftly crossed the drainage stream over a fallen log. He was tall, bearded, and as he got close, we could see that he was wearing nylon hiking pants, with zippers up the side. He had the zippers completely open for ventilation. He wore a bandana around his neck and was carrying what appeared to be an 80 pound pack.

“Hello there!” I shouted as the hiker neared the camp. “Hi!” he said as he approached. “Didn’t expect to see anybody this far out” he said." His eyes immediately found our bear bags. “Think that’s gonna' work?” he asked. “Hope so, or else were gonna' have a long, hungry walk home,” I said. “Where you coming from?” Marc asked. “Canada,” the hiker said. Mark and I exchanged a surprised glance. “Where you headed?” I asked. “ Mexico," he said calmly. “That’s a long walk,”  I laughed. I was thinking “This is better than meeting a bear!

The Pacific Crest Trail runs a course along the rim of the Cascade and Sierra range all the way from British Columbia, Canada, down to Mexico. Every year, a few brave souls hike the entire route, in a period of about 5-6 months. Hiking the pacific crest is the Boston Marathon of back-packing. More than 1,500 miles of some of the roughest most spectacular terrain on earth. “When did you start?” Mark asked. “May,” the Hiker said, “I had to plan out the food very carefully. I take enough for a week in my pack, and pack the rest in a large box. I send the box to a mountain town somewhere down the trail, hike down to it, and restock my provisions each week. Then I send it to the next drop”. “How many miles do you cover in a day,” I asked. “I average about 30 miles a day,”he said. “Thirty!” I gasped. I had been feeling pretty good about my measly 8 miles a day, but also pretty tired at the end of each hike. This guy was doing 30 miles a day! The hiker continued to explain that he gets up at the crack of dawn, breaks camp in 15 minutes and hits the trail immediately. He hikes until the Sun goes down, only stopping to refill his water bottle and eat. He had started in late May and intended to complete his trip by November. It was crucial that he clear the Northern California section of the mountains by early October in order to avoid the snow. We continued to talk, but the hiker seemed restless. His tall, gaunt, wiry body seemed to have a mind of its own. He sort of paced while he talked, as if he couldn’t contain his boundless energy. “How do you deal with bears?" I asked. The hiker got a serious look on his face as his clear, determined eyes met mine. “Well, that’s my only worry," he said..  "I’ve read a lot about these Yosemite bears. Everywhere else I hang my food. Here, I am not eating any cooked food. I am camping away from developed campsites and keeping the food bag inside my tent. I also say my prayers before I go to sleep!” “Your brave,” I said. “Sleeping with your food bag seems like a good way to have a bear for a bunk mate!” The hiker explained that this was the preferred method of Pacific Crest Trail hikers when they pass through the Yosemite area. Apparently they are more concerned about protecting their food than they are about protecting their bodies from bear claws. “I think I’ll just hang my food.” I said.

“Well, nice talking to you. I’ve gotta get going. There’s still about an hour of daylight left,” the hiker said. We wished him good luck as he power-hiked down the trail. “He hikes like the energizer bunny,”  Betty chimed in. “No kidding,”  Marc said. I couldn’t help but think what a great adventure and challenge he had set for himself. “Cranking out 30 miles a day would be a little too intense for my blood,”  I said. “Me too,” Diane said. Yet the thought of hiking from Canada to Mexico through the mountains was totally captivating. Even a weekend in the wilderness changes a person, makes them more self sufficient, happier, less complicated, and more flexible. “I can’t imagine what six months of backpacking would do to your head.” I said. Mark agreed.

Our trek through the mountains continued on, the following days, to produce consistent magic. Our pace was easy and the terrain forgiving, we had already crossed the three huge ridges which separated us from the Western Side of the Sierras and were now on a down hill course. My body felt strong, having fully adjusted to the daily hiking and extra weight. My mind was calm and expansive. There comes a point in every backpacking trip when boundaries dissolve, the ceaseless chatter of the mind falls away, and a hiker feels at one with the natural settings around him. I had reached that point on the first day and was now feeling completely free.

My hiking friends and I have an unspoken understanding that each of us hikes at our own pace. There is absolutely no pressure or expectation to hike fast or slow. Each person finds their own balance. During the last three days of the trip, I took full advantage of this, sometimes hiking far behind the group, and other times well out in front. This gave me the opportunity to hike completely alone, experiencing the feeling of total self sufficiency and intimate solitude. Near the end of the hike, I started down the last section of trail called “the wall”,  a long series of switchbacks, so-named because they traverse a nearly vertical face of about 1000 feet. At the first switchback, a spectacular view of Hetch Hetchy reservoir and dam came into sight far below. I would soon be crossing that dam and the trip would be over. I thought about the hiker we had met a few days before and wondered where he might be camping that night. I thought about how good it felt to be completely self sufficient in the middle of such a spectacular environment. “Who needs the Himalayas,” I thought, as I walked down the rocky trail. “A person can live like a yogi even in California!”

Backpacking, hiking, or even walking regularly is a great remedial measure for Saturn. It cultivates an attitude of self sufficiency and perseverance. When you backpack, you accept and carry your own baggage and learn to adjust to discomfort. You develop the ability to be happy in any circumstance.