Sunday, June 9, 2013

Gold Country: Only Fools Rush In

Pelton Water Wheel

In the late 1850s, a man named  Lester Allan Pelton left his family home in Ohio and headed West. It was the height of the Gold Rush era, and he, like many other men and some ladies, too, decided to seek his fortune in the hills of California.

Who knows what life was like for prospector in those days?  My imaginary Pelton lived a dirty, rough existence. He slept in a tent in a mining camp. Food was expensive. He ate moldy hardtack and beans cooked over a smokey fire. Hard by a river, he staked a claim. By day, he panned for gold. By night, he dreamed of gold --when he slept. He often didn't, worried about claim jumpers or starving or worse: the claim would yield nothing. He didn't bathe, just panned with a fever and let the water of the river rush over his feet, his hands. His stomach hurt from bad food. The nails on his fingers and toes grew into long, thick and yellowed claws. His beard went wild and after some time, his thoughts.

A Prospector

Pelton failed as a miner.

When he didn't strike it rich, he went on to become a fisherman, then a millwright, then a carpenter. But he never did stop learning about mining. Even after he left his claim behind, Pelton observed closely the methods and equipment used by miners. As the practice grew from a few men with picks and pans to large underground operations that employed thousands, the equipment that evolved in service to it was inefficient and required too many trees to remain sustainable forever. In the late 1870s, Pelton invented the Pelton Water Wheel an impulse water turbine that used kinetic energy rather than weight or steam and heat. His invention revolutionized mining and the field of hydroelectric power.

If you go visit any of the small Sierra foothill towns of California's Gold Country, you're bound to see a  Pelton Water Wheel somewhere. Lester Allan Pelton never hit the Mother Lode, but he is now known as the Father of Hydroelectic Power, and his invention powers hydroelectic plants even today.

Lester Allan Pelton

Memorial Day weekend, with dreams of untold riches in our heads, Mag and I set out for Gold Country for a short trip to Empire Mine State Historic Park and South Yuba River State Park. We were there less than 48 hours, but that didn't stop me from believing, like so many before us, that we might just hit an accidental jackpot while wading through the crisp clear waters flowing down from the mountains. Never mind that the real California Gold Rush was a somewhat ugly and brutal episode of history that took place in the middle of the 19th Century. And never mind that when the claims of individual prospectors were exhausted and the era of big mines, like Empire, began it was only a short epoch and embiggened only the wallets of folks whose wallets were already embiggened. Never mind that the big mines are now all full up with water, or that gold fever had left the surrounding environment disturbed and poisoned, so that huge swaths of it are too toxic or dangerous to meander through over a hundred years later.

My Imagined Future

In my fantasy, a few small sparkling nuggets of gold would be tucked snugly under a rock feet from the shores of the river, and I need only disturb it gently with my foot or hand to uncover the fortune that would change my life forever.

And what would I buy with such untold riches? Time to write? A plot of land? A hippie bus? A mountain cottage? A bowling alley? A robot butler? I'm lucky already, and my wants are all just dreams. But they're fun to think about and easy to get lost in, too.

South Yuba River

The bed of the South Yuba River shimmers with tiny flecks of gold. Reach in and grab a handful of sand and gravel, and the glass-like water carries it from you in a glittering plume. It's fleeting and hopeful and pretty.

Pants rolled up, I waded through the cold water and slippery stones.

Mag and I had just come from a long hike along the shores of the river and up, up, up into the foothills, then back down again. It was hot but bearable. A late night out drinking took its toll; I sweated and huffed all the way up, but the views of the foothills, the blue waters of the reservoir below, and time spent in good company were well worth any discomfort.

After our hike, as we sat by the river in the shade of an old bridge and ate half sandwiches and watermelon, it was difficult to imagine ever having been hot or tired. Above us, cliff swallows swooped down to the shore and back again to their gourd shaped nests lined up in a neat row. It is amazing to me, how they fly in unison, spinning and falling, rising, turning together without any language to know. Their nests, too, are so uniform, as if home is built into their genetic code. Sometimes I wish that was the same for me: to know, without knowing how, all the deep and essential stuff of life.

The water was so cold at first it hurt, and my bare feet couldn't find a place that wasn't sharp or slick. I liked that feeling, an acute but bearable pain; it brought me to the moment. When it passed, I leaned down and stuck my hands in. I tipped over rocks and picked up small handfuls of sand, then let it glide away with the current. Close by, Mag did the same, and we called out from time to time from our impromptu claims to let each other know neither of us had struck it rich, not yet.

We Did Not Have a Dog or Pans.

Searching for gold in a river is an exercise in mindfulness. It requires concentration. It requires patience. One need only stand in quiet and pay attention to the thing in front of her. There is not future, not past, only what is in her hands, only what is under them, only what drifts away.

But I wonder when it becomes something else? Because it does. To pan for gold is more than just the act of panning; to pan for gold is to also temper oneself against desire or to give oneself fully over to it. I stood in the South Yuba River. I searched with a mix of anticipation, hope and also with the kind of disappointment that comes just before a loss. My mind began to let go of the moment and find its way to a grandiose fantasy of all I could have or be, just if...

Was it something like those miners who dreamed of gold? So caught in the trance of imaginary riches, they lost sight of the moment and the real richness of it. It is often easy for me to do the same, to lean into an imagined future, when the present is not so bad at all.

Of course, like Pelton, I failed as a miner.

It's okay. It's not terrible where my mind goes when I imagine being unburdened by a sudden windfall and left with the time and space to think and write and create. There are infinite retreats and habitations, adventures and long days doing nothing but waking late and drinking coffee in the sun.

My imaginary life of leisure is surprisingly full, but there's little risk that I'll trade it in for the real one I already have. And I know that time, as squirrely as its nature might be, passes, and with it comes something more solid and valuable than any instant fantasy or sudden shift in circumstance can deliver. Time's passing, as tedious as it can seem from where I stand in any given moment, enriches everything.

Time gives us time. It's that simple. It's a gift greater than any old nugget of gold.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Keep Walking - Bear Creek Trail - Briones Regional Park

Just me on Bear Creek Trail

This weekend I went for a long solitary hike on Bear Creek Trail in Briones Regional Park. I heard it was good place for spring wildflower viewing, and I had been longing for a break from the "being stuck inside" times at the end of the rainy season in the Bay Area.

Up late the night before, perhaps a little hungover, a little dreamy and thoughtful, I packed some food and water and headed out. It was misty; what I call "unicorn fog" clung to the hills and the trees on them, thick and eerie like in a fairy tale. On the road out to the trail head, a raptor of some kind came gliding down in front of the car. I thought for an instant that I might hit it. I didn't, and the worry was replaced with the joy of "just having seen that."

There were only a few cars parked at the trail head, and there was no one around when I started down the path. I made sure to sign in at the registry and text a friend to let her know where I was, in case I disappeared or something. I was excited. I'd never been that park, and it was new, and it was all mine. So down the path I walked, taking in the views of the reservoir, moss covered trees, and carpets of teensy flowers.

Rainy Reservoir

I wasn't completely present. I was thinking through all the things that were happening in my life, sometimes close to the trail, sometimes floating in that rich and creative imaginary brain space. It wasn't until I was pretty far along, that I actually realized I was alone.

I usually hike with a buddy. Who knows what can happen? A twisted ankle or a wrong turn, God forbid some creepy molestory-type like what happens in every Lifetime movie ever made? Look, I'm not dumb. I'm a lady. I'm pretty small. I do not have any secret super powers. I know I am liberated, but it doesn't make me free.

When I had this realization, I stopped. I felt my foot fall back. Then my foot advanced. I rocked in place for a moment. I felt, I guess, fear: the collective weight of all the possibilities, the bad ones. I felt the wind rise up, and I listened to it flow through the trees and the grasses, and I heard some birds out on the water.

I thought about all the times I wanted true solitude out in nature, and all the times I wanted to stand on my own without any other observers or conversations or interjections, where I could feel exactly and only what I was feeling. I thought about how long I had longed for that and how terrifying it really was, not just the "alone-ness" but also the "being-ness."

With no audience beside myself, was I as authentic, as deep? I was afraid of all of the real contingencies, and of the emotional ones, as well.

With only flowers to bear witness...

As I stood on the path halfway between coming and going, I reminded myself that the first part of courage is seeing fear clearly, recognizing how scared you are, and then going forward, whether it's heart first into the forest or heart first into your own heart.

In her book True Refuge, Tara Brach writes "Our undefended heart can fall in love with life over and over every day. We become children of wonder, grateful to be walking on earth, grateful to belong with each other and to all of creation. We find our true refuge in every moment, in every breath. We are happy for no reason."

In that moment, looking clearly at my own fear, I felt, also, the deepest, strongest sense of pure happiness: I was alone, in the woods, and it was all mine, and it was beautiful.

I kept walking.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

2013: Your Weaknesses Are Your Strengths

Me, Red Rock Canyon State Park, 12-30-2012

True story: the other day I was driving my poor twelve year old car to the muffler shop when my brakes went out. The day before I had returned from a camping trip to Death Valley National Park. All that previous week, my buddies and I had been driving in that poor twelve year old car up and down around and through mountains and mountain foothills and hills and twisty roads and long stretches of uninhabitable, desolate desert where wrong turns and breakdowns can have serious consequences.

One of my biggest fears is losing control on a steep mountain pass. I have nightmares about it. Sometimes when I'm driving on a road with a grade or a sharp turn, I have a panic attack. Sometimes I have to close my eyes or cover my face when I'm riding through mountains as a passenger. Sometimes, I just start crying my eyes out because I am so scared.

Despite this crippling phobia, I love going places that happen to be in, on, around, and near mountains.

A few days before the trip to Death Valley, I took my car to the mechanic to check its brakes because I heard a little noise, and my big fear cropped right up. I wasn't sleeping, thinking about going through those mountains not having checked the brakes one last time. The brakes, my mechanic said, were just fine. So, my buddy and I packed up our camping gear, and we hit the road.

The brakes went out. But not on a mountain pass or in the desolate desert. They went out on a busy city street next to a service station and a bus stop, and everything was just fine.

Heading into Death Valley National Park

It was wonderful to see in the New Year in such a wild and beautiful place and in such good company. As my friend and I drove in on 190 E down through the mountain passes toward our destination at Furnace Creek, it wasn't fear I felt, but something without a precise name deep, deep, deep in every part of me. And I did cry, because it was overwhelming. It was something like amazement, something like drama.

Let me tell you: there is nothing like this place anywhere on earth and possibly not even in your imagination.

That first day was cold and windy, and it had rained and snowed. On the way into the park, we stop shortly at Father Crowley Point. The wind was so strong there. It played against the earth and its crevices like a giant recorder humming deep notes.

All through the trip, the wind howled. With almost nothing to howl through, it was often just up there in the air, moving. At night, in and out of sleep, I would hear it and think, what a comforting sound, though there was something preternatural in it. Maybe it was just that it was the only sound.

We spent a few days camping with friends who drove in from Arizona. No cell phones, no computers, no Facebook. After sunset, we sang songs around the campfire and stared at the stars, and made meals, and cursed the cold, and told jokes. By daylight, we explored.

My buddies just chillin' on Mesquite Flat Dunes

I like camping. Most of the time is spent solving problems, simple problems of comfort. We have to figure out how best to cook a meal over a fire or how to get make coffee when the propane stove goes bust. We have to decide how to stay out of the smoke, how to stay warm, where to pee, if we're all getting enough water... The whole time we were out there, I didn't think once about my student loans or my job or the future. I didn't look at a clock. Time had a different quality.

Devil's Golf Course

I'm what you might call a naturally anxious person, and I've always seen this as a weakness. In the absence of big worries, there are always worries to fill the gap. What if a rattlesnake crawls into my sleeping bag? What if we run out of gas? What if we lose control and fly off the mountain? What if one of us breaks a bone at Devil's Golf Course? My anxiety is always with me.

On this trip, my friends and I played the "worst case scenario" game, in which I propose an activity, and they brainstorm the worst case scenarios until I'm giggling instead of fixating on what could go wrong.

Q: What could happen on Artist's Drive? 
A: We're all so overcome with beauty, we abandon the car to paint.

Bad Water

I'm not obtuse, I know my friends worry about my worry, then I worry about them worrying about my worry because that is what I do. It's a cycle, though not necessarily a vicious one. I was feeling a bit down about this anyway, worrying out loud if my worry was a total mellow harsher, when one of my friends started laughing.

She said that she was glad I was the person I was because I was always prepared. She knew, if we broke down, we would be fine, because I brought enough water for everyone, because we had food and shade and sunscreen. And, in real life, if there was an earthquake, she said, I'd be that person, the one with enough supplies to keep going. Everyone would want to be with me.

In all my years of worrying, I'd never thought about how it could be a strength. I only ever saw it as an obstacle that needed to be worked through or with or around, and in the space of a few sentences, my friend helped me to understand it could also be something really great about me too.

Natural Bridge Trail with Ing

Every year, I try to come up with a motto, instead of a set of resolutions. I think about this for a few months before and a few days into the New Year. There were a number of contenders, but 2013: Your Weaknesses Are Your Strengths is the winner.

This year, I plan to flip what I perceive as my personal weaknesses and obstacles right on their heads and look at them under a different lens instead of getting down about them.

Zabriskie Point at Sunset

True story: 2013 is going to be a great year!!!

Happy New Year!