Land in the Sky: Beyond This Point

Climbing-MuseumI stopped in at Rock and Snow, the venerable climbing shop in New Paltz, New York. Its address, at least for me, is Memory Lane, in the very shadow of the Shawangunks. Inside the front door is an alcove that houses a small museum of climbing gear from days gone by. Displayed in glass cases are old ropes, vintage hardware, timeworn climbing shoes, and moldering guidebooks to the Gunks. Although I’ve never been much of a rock climber—the genial Southeast Buttress of Cathedral Peak in Yosemite being the most daunting of my meager ascents—I did learn how to climb in the Gunks, oh so many years ago.

In 1979 I was a college student studying forestry in Maine. That summer I was hired by the Mohonk Preserve (in those days called the Mohonk Trust) to serve as a “wilderness ranger.” I lived in a drafty shack by myself, a mile or more from any human neighbor, on the shore of a scruffy body of water called Duck Pond. My duties included managing a small walk-in campground and conducting an ecological research project. A “gas shortage” that summer meant I pretty much had the place to myself. So I spent a lot of time reading books and hanging around with the “rock rangers” up at the Trapps. The rock rangers sold passes and patrolled the cliffs of what is probably the most congested climbing area in North America, even when there’s a gas shortage. In those days, the rock rangers lived in their own shacks at a place called the Uberfall.

The rock ranger in charge was a jovial fellow in his late twenties by the name of Chuck Liff. Chuck had a big beard, a big laugh, and an even bigger heart. He was a kind of big brother to me that summer, and taught me how to climb. No matter how despondent I sometimes became over events great or small that were looming in those times—whether a wobbly romance, or the drifting plumes from Three Mile Island, or the prospect of Skylab falling from the heavens, or the roof of my shack being ripped off during a microburst—Chuck was an unfailing spring of good cheer. He always welcomed me and the other rangers into his camp. Many an evening we’d sit around the fire at the base of the cliff, shadows bouldering along the edge of the light, and devour big pans of something called “Core Meltdown Cornbread”, as Chuck regaled us with stories of the mountains, told long jokes, or read passages from Edward Abbey to stir our enthusiasm for a little environmental advocacy. Those were good days, and—looking back now—I can say they had a profoundly greater effect on the course of my life than the four years of forestry education I endured in Maine. I never saw Chuck again after that summer, but I thought of him often, and fondly.

Thanks to the internet, not long ago I was able to track Chuck down. I discovered that after completing his graduate work in Systems Ecology, he went on to career with the EPA and then the US Forest Service. I found a Forest Service webpage that invited me to “Contact Chuck Liff”. The instructions said: “Please enter your contact information and comment below. Please note–if you incorrectly enter your email address, Chuck Liff will not be able to contact you.” I did not provide my contact information. I was sure Chuck wouldn’t be getting back to me. Thanks again to the internet, I knew that he had passed away, at age sixty, a month before. Pancreatic cancer.

As I stood there in the alcove of Rock and Snow, looking over that once-familiar climbing gear now entombed behind museum glass, the grief that had been dogging me for the past month—over Chuck’s death, the missed opportunities, the mere and savage passage of time—became more acute. I might as well have been standing in a funeral parlor.

But then I turned from the glass sarcophagi and saw on the wall an 8×10 photo somebody had tacked up. It was a picture of Chuck—at the age I remember him—along with a couple of his climbing friends. They are standing smiling atop a soaring peak in the American west, big blue sky swooping down around them, range upon range of mountains cascading out into bright distances. The three friends are holding a weather-beaten Park Service sign that reads: “Climbing Registration Required For Travel Beyond This Point”. Clearly a prank. They had hauled that sign up there with them to the summit. No doubt a joke devised by Chuck himself.

Below this glorious photo is a caption that serves as a memorial. It says: “Chuck Liff Loved the Gunks, Was a Preserve Ranger, And Now Is Traveling Beyond This Point.” What’s more, registration is no longer required, apart from what is claimed by the heart.Beyond-This-Point

The God of Skiing: Chapter 29, Saint-Exupery

Ed’s Note: Few ski bums have perfected the art of living the ski life better than Mountain Gazette’s editor-at-large, Peter Kray. The man has spent years seeing the sport from every angle—from the finish line of the Vancouver Olympics, to safety breaks in the Jackson Hole backcountry, to the halls of the SIA trade show in Vegas, to hiking A-Basin’s East Wall with his dad and brother, to racing as a kid at Eldora, to slumming it up in Austria, Portillo, Alaska, Santa Fe… His book, The God of Skiing, is due out this fall and he will be sharing excerpts from it here at the Gazette for the next few months. Enjoy.


Chapter 29

The Rettenbach Glacier is as steep and tree-less as a sheet snapping in
the wind. A gondola runs over the course where models on a stage were lipsynching
to Austro-pop anthems. In the VIP tent the competitors walked
down the buffet line in black numbered bibs like racehorses with the saddles
still on. The cheers for them would blow down the mountain. It was loudest
for the Austrians. But for Miller you could hear it growing like a wave,
almost primal the way it rang.

He was fastest by far in the second run. The Europeans said he skied
like he was “Riding a bull,” pushing his skis from his heels to gain speed as
the boards slipped down the hill and he tried to catch up to them. “He does
not care what t-ey t-ink. Only ski-eeng mat-airs to heem.

Miller could win by magnificent portions, or crash so spectacularly it
seemed as if the reins had been jerked from his hands. And it reminded me
of Strau, how he learned to ski in New Hampshire on icy nights under the
lights like skating practice on the pond. The bloody noses and sore elbows
from the gates, and sharp-banged blondes drinking wine coolers with names
like Heidi and Kim.

Your friend who died? Thees was t-e seas-own?

“No,” I said, and thought of how when I walked out of the pressroom
the moon-eyed girls were already 10 deep, blinking for a glimpse of “the

“It just wasn’t until October that they found him.”

We went for dinner at a hunting lodge with hostesses in fraulein
costumes. Cars were off the road and there was only room downstairs at the
bar. The special was pfeffer steak and carafes of the house red wine.

We were joined by Martin, a ski shop owner who used to be a butcher,
who talked about all the different cuts of meat and the way different types of
women ordered them: the housekeepers that leaned against the counter until
he thought the glass would cave in, the young wives that just stared until he
asked what they were thinking, and the divorcees who wanted to know how
sweet the meat was, and what temperature for cooking.

“Men just want to know how it tastes,” Martin said, sniffing his wine
with his great long nose. “But women want the whole scenario of the thing.”

He was about to explain the “whole scenario,” when the steak came,
served on big white plates with French fries and carrots and the perfect
orange cursive sauce dripped presentation. The meat was thick and cooked
perfectly pink and all three of us were quiet and happy, eating the steak and
mopping up the sauce first with the golden brown fries then the soft white
bread until we smiled around at each other like we were waking from a
dream. “May-bee a lee-tle beer?” Jean-Marc suggested when the wine was
gone. “Or purr-haps zee Weel-yums?

The Williams was served in fluted glasses like thimbles of gasoline.
We sniffed the crystal fruit and sipped it like it was someone we were
kissing; that detached fire that burns down your throat with the fermented
memory of the sun. “T-e best t-ing of alcohol, is t-at time stands still when
you are drink-ing
,” Jean-Marc said, looking at no one. And I thought of
tables in time, shirtsleeves rolled up to the elbows and lovers, brothers and
friends. I thought that few people in the world are as happy as the Austrians,
to make such an alcohol that your mind can crave like fire on your tongue.
We seemed to float up the stairs, into the cold pushing the warmth
even further within. The lights rose like embers toward the boulevard of bars
where we walked to a pub called Bier Himmel and spoiled the night with too
many Wiesse bieres, sucking diesel from the buses up the long mountain
road to the glacier in the morning, trying like every skier does to ski out the
alcohol with run after run.

But that night on the road Jean-Marc said God was always there,
somewhere in the starry sky, as long as someone believed in him. That in
every great idea, eternity begins again. And we never really leave this world,
but remain forever in some soulful kind of radiation.

It is the ener-gee of liv-eeng!

He said some of us are filled with such a spirit of life we inspire
people we never even meet, or that even live in our lifetime. For him it was
Antoine de St. Exupery, the French pilot and writer who disappeared near
Marseille in World War II and who wrote Wind, Sand and Stars.

Jean-Marc said “St. Ex” taught the “t-e beauty of a life in motion.
Years later, he was devastated when they found the wreck age of St.
Exupery’s plane. Why, he wondered had they not just left those broken
pieces hidden beneath the waves and sand?

Ev-a-ree-buddy dies,” he said that night, still imagining St. Ex
somewhere above us in the nighttime sky, writing and flying. “But when t-ey
die, you Kant! die wit t-em.

Postcard: Mount of the Holy Cross

Mount of the Holy Cross, just southwest of Minturn, Colorado, is one of the most famous mountains in the west. It is also a royal beeatch to access before the summer solstice, at which point a 9-mile, potholed dirt road to the trailhead opens to vehicles. A friend, Brennan Lagasse, and I talked about skiing the couloir that plunges off the east face of the 14,005-foot peak and creates the vertical shaft of the holy cross, but our schedules meant we would have to attempt it two days before the road opened. We hitched trailers to mountain bikes and climbed 2,200 feet Wednesday night, then set out at dawn the next morning. Merciless foot travel up boulder fields, through dense willows, and across melting waterfalls made the couloir ascent feel like walking on a beach. After we skied, we scrambled up Notch Mountain to the east and reached a stone hut that stares back at the cross, fronted by the summer’s first wildflowers. I could have stayed up there looking at the peak until dark. (Click image to enlarge)

Photo by Devon O'Neil
Photo by Devon O’Neil

Land in the Sky: Without Us

Early-EveningEarly evening, Catskill Mountains of New York. I sit on the front deck and sip from a glass of wine, enjoying a fine spell of June weather. The trees are robust and green. In one of them a dove is cooing. Chipmunks scamper along a nearby stone wall. It was built by a farmer who died long before I or my parents were born. The stones have lichens on them. Just down the hill, the collie puppy is digging up the eggplant seedlings I put in last week. He enjoys shaking off the earth from their roots. Then he chews on them. The seedlings weren’t doing well in that ground and wouldn’t have made it anyway.

I look again to the trees robust and green. Many of them are white ashes. For more than a decade, an invasive, emerald-hued pest has been making its way east from Michigan. It arrived there in a shipping container from Asia and has been killing ash trees by the millions ever since. It’s not far away now. It may even be here. These white ashes will be gone soon enough. The Catskill hemlocks are already succumbing to another pest.

This fine spell of June weather won’t last either. I take another sip of wine. Where would enjoyment be without us?

Postcard: Bike-to-Ski Season, Colorado

June and July (and, if you’re so inclined, August) are the months when skiing in Colorado requires an unusually long approach, the sort we rarely face in this state thanks to our high altitude. Yet despite the extra weight on our backs and the five hours it took to ski 1,700 vertical feet, there was something especially pleasing about mountain biking then hiking then cramponing up a steep swath on one of our go-to local mountains Sunday. Due to a nearby flooded road, the county has yet to open the approach to vehicle traffic. Which meant we had it to ourselves, which meant the added effort and pain was worth it. (Click image to enlarge)

Photo by Devon O’Neil

The High Country of the Mind

The High Country of the Mind  

How many mountains does it take to reach the high country of the mind? We often glimpse it, but how do we get there? What does it take to bring the clarity of our experience of the mountains into all aspects of our lives?

By David Scott Gilligan

P1060706It is early evening, midsummer in the mountains. The sun disappears behind the high granite peaks. The air cools. The snow that remains here refreezes. Wildflowers which stood boldly open in the bright day— Kalmia, Dodecatheon, Potentilla—shrink back, as the light grows pale and the air cold. The wind that has whooshed and swirled through this place all day long lies down to rest. The land is hushed. I pull on long pants, two wool shirts, a warm hat, lace up my beat-up shoes, and set out up wide granite slabs for the alpine world.

I move with fluidity and efficiency, like an animal. Each breath of the cool, thin air offers a little awakening, and I can feel my body assimilating oxygen molecules. They feel charged. Like the air’s equivalent of whitewater. I set my steps to the rhythm of my breath. My mind clears.

Ahead and above is the wide world of granite, snow, streams and thin bands of green exploding with life, a glacial amphitheater ringed by splintered, serrated gray-and-white peaks which rise like enormous standing waves of stone. A few hundred feet above my camp, I reach a wide bench on which is set a deep lake. It is named Sky Blue Lake, but now it is stark, frozen white, its only open water at its outlet. But there are cracks set across its icy surface and some of these emit an eerie glacial blue color that I can only compare to the Himalayan sky. Above and around the lake the land rises in rounded heaps and benches of snow-covered granite, which form buttressed foundations of the surrounding peaks. Although I can hear the sound of dozens of small cascades of snowmelt, the basin seems silent. Underneath the silence is a deep drone, a humming, a persistent vibration. I have felt this before in the high mountains and on the Arctic tundra, but only a few times. It is hypnotic. It induces a trance-like state in me.

Here, now, during the crack between the light of day and the dark of night, the brash world of our normal experience yields a little bit to the sublime aspect of reality that is always there but difficult to access. The rules of probability, set by reason, give way to a mysterious sense of possibility. It is not hard to imagine enormous mythical wolverines prowling around here or elemental titans acting as conduits for thunderbolts, casting and smashing boulders, raging and laughing and then growing quiet for an age. It is not such a stretch to relate to the sobering madness of legendary Chinese mountain poets, the transfiguration of Judeo-Christian prophets, the terrible and blissful epiphanies of American transcendentalist naturalists. They are all here amidst this utter stillness and freshening cold. Their story is told in the deep, humming song of this place. The Chinese Buddhist monk and poet, Han Shan tells us:

I settled at Cold Mountain long ago,

Already it seems like years and years.

Freely drifting, I prowl the woods and streams

And linger watching things themselves.

Men don’t get this far into the mountains,

White clouds gather and billow.

Thin grass does for a mattress,

The blue sky makes a good quilt.

Happy with a stone underhead

Let heaven and earth go about their changes.


P1010926Why do we go to the high mountains? What have such places come to mean in the deep recesses of our consciousness? The answers to these questions lie in our own physical experience: the rhythmic synchronization of breath and step that it takes to ascend into the high country, the alchemy of time on the ground in motion through space, and in our mental process: the meditative trance of the summit experience, the reflections in camp or on the journey home. We respond to time in the high mountains by attaining a state that is relatively rare in the lowlands.

Such a state of being has been described and extolled by many, easterners, westerners and indigenes alike. Han Shan says of life on Cold Mountain “silent knowledge—the spirit is enlightened of itself; contemplate the void: this world exceeds stillness.” Henry David Thoreau exclaims of his glimpse into the high country of the mind while on Katahdin, the lone and barren granitic mountain of northern Maine, “Think of our life in nature,–daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it,–rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! The actual world! The common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we?” John Muir urges us to the high country by saying “climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.” Here are the answers to the question of why we go to the high mountains.

Hundreds of such descriptions made by mad mountain poets, philosophers, wilderness prophets, as well as explorers, mountaineers, rangers and other backcountry ramblers can be summed up in one short phrase: we go to the mountains for clarity. In the mountains we gain glimpses into the high country of the mind, where our fragmented and unrelated reality resolves into a single, cohesive whole, and the result is a degree of peacefulness and purposefulness seldom attained in everyday life. We feel this by degrees, each according to our own development in this life in space and time, but we all feel it. Thus mountains become temples in the sky, the original monasteries to which we retreat, sallying back to the mundane world of the lowlands, foray after foray, testing the clarity afforded by retreat against the infinite distractions of the marketplace.

Why do we attain such clarity in the high country? The reasons are multiple. Biologically speaking, human beings evolved over a million years of hunting and gathering camp life. The rather sudden cultural transition to an agrarian and eventually industrial lifestyle has been, in short, unsettling to the Pleistocene-attuned human body and mind. Intentionally engaging in aspects of camp life come as a relief to us. As Doug Robinson articulates in The Alchemy of Action, regular physical activity and exertion is the most simple and ancient tonic, the original biochemical high, which makes us simultaneously more ready and more relaxed: more receptive to higher states of consciousness. Combined with the naturally meditative pace of human-powered foot travel, the biochemical and meditative benefits of moving across a landscape are reason enough for periodic refrains to such a lifestyle.

Our minds are further stimulated by the multiplicity of organic, non-repeating forms in the natural world, each an expression of the expanding creativity of phenomenal nature, itself an emanation of the infinite creativity of the Absolute, the Tao, the Source, Ultimate Reality, “Tat”, which can not be named. Muir reminds us, “there are no square-edged inflexible lines in nature.” No two snow crystals are the same, but neither are any two leaves or flowers or fruits, streams, rivers, lakes, skies, stones, to say nothing of the more animated creatures of the world: warm and pulsing birds and mammals, intricately moving insects, sliding, oozing mollusks, all our distant kin. Enmeshed in such a matrix of life, we attend to meaningful activities: listening and smelling for water, finding and collecting fire wood, preparing the food that we need to keep warm, to keep moving. All of this amidst the “quietness”, in the vibrational sense of the word, of a place unsullied by too much human business.


P1040045 All of this is inherent in wild places, be they desert, mountain, forest or sea. But what of the mountains? What is so singular about the high country? Foremost is the perspective afforded by the combination of the extreme physical exertion implicit in working against the grain of gravity, along with attaining greater and greater heights. More simply put, we can see more the higher we go, and because of the nature of our efforts we are more fit to see. The alchemy of physical exertion is heightened by intentionally engaging in rhythmic breathing exercises while ascending, which alone is a powerful method of increasing one’s receptivity to higher consciousness. The physiological interactions of the body with rarified air exaggerates the effects of such exercise.

At 10,000 feet the body is working with 75 percent the amount of oxygen it gets at sea level; at twenty thousand feet it is working with only 50 percent. As the amount of oxygen in the air decreases, the body’s efforts increase. As the air gets thin, life on Earth becomes more ethereal, and as we are pushed further through the curtain that separates life and death, we see much that was veiled before. Even without such exertion, attaining elevational heights can bring about notable shifts in consciousness, as experienced by many upon seeing the world from the perspective of an airplane. When combined, attaining a heightened alchemical state simultaneous with elevation gain is more powerful than either alone, and tends to dissolve the distinction between literal and metaphorical experiences of reality. As the distinction between these two ways of seeing becomes blurred, our perception on the wholeness of reality becomes clearer.

We ascend into a world that is raw, elemental, primordial and dynamic because it is in a state of genesis. From a geological perspective the high mountains of the world have all uplifted in the Cenozoic Era, mostly in the last twenty million years, and all are tectonically active. In geographic lingo such mountains—those of the Alpine-Himalayan system and the Pacific Rim Cordilleran system—are diagnostically primary mountains, meaning they are happening now. Interestingly, most of these mountains are also primary in the ecological sense: their bedrock either recently erupted and cooled or scoured down to stark naked stone by the episodic comings and goings of Pleistocene ice. Here, then, is the earth still in the making, and here can be felt the atmosphere of infinite possibility inherent in such places. That high mountains tend to be non-arable, sparsely populated (if at all) by humans and biologically spare all contribute to their clean, monastic aesthetic and their wild nature. Their nature is wild, perhaps, along with the deepest oceans, the wildest on earth; they are freshly hewn and direct from the source, unpredictable, free, unsullied by the vibrations of human consciousness. As if to make certain of this, their heightened state often wreathes them in weather, shrouds them in storms, obscures them in clouds, and whitens their flanks. Forests are wiped out in furious avalanches, hundred ton blocks of rock are wedged off of cliff edges by incessant frost, and there is a catharsis of continual contact with the sky.

The raw, elemental, nature of mountains, as well as their dynamic nature of being in a constant state of creation, loom large in the descriptions of those who have known their essences. Han Shan said of Cold Mountain “In the mountains it’s cold. Always been cold, not just this year. Jagged scarps forever snowed in, woods in the dark ravines spitting mist. Grass is still sprouting at the end of June, leaves begin to fall in early August. And here am I, high on mountains, peering and peering, but I can’t even see the sky.” Thoreau said repeatedly of Katahdin that it was raw and unfinished, that it was “primeval, untamed, and forever untamable Nature…the earth of which we have heard, made of Chaos and Old Night…it was the fresh and natural surface of the planet Earth as it was made for ever and ever.” Muir echoed similar sentiments in his own vernacular when reflecting on his experiences in the mountains of California: “…everything is flowing—going somewhere, animals and so-called lifeless rocks as well as water. Thus the snow flows fast or slow in grand beauty-making glaciers and avalanches; the air in majestic floods carrying minerals, plant leaves, seeds, spores, with streams of music and fragrance; water streams carrying rocks both in solution and in the form of mud particles, sand, pebbles and boulders. Rocks flow from volcanoes like water from springs, and animals flock together and flow in currents modified by stepping, leaping, gliding, flying, swimming. While the stars go streaming through space pulsed on forever like blood globules in nature’s warm heart.”


P1200979The day wanes and the moon does not rise. The austerity of the landscape is exaggerated by the pale, cold light—there is neither brightness nor shadow. Above the basin, the high peaks grow gray and grim. Above, stars become visible.

The peaks and ridges that surround this basin are alluring. Like all high mountains, they beckon me ever upward, closer to the gods, closer to madness, closer to transfiguration, epiphanies. In the mountains, one’s gaze is most easily drawn upward. Here is a vertical landscape which suggests both literal and metaphorical ascension. The first few high peaks I climbed each brought about a certain transformation. I remember every one of those climbs in detail.

I came to expect such highs, to crave them, to look forward to the next one during the often long spells in the lowlands. The next few years of ascents were still satisfying but less and less remarkable. I can only recall the details of these climbs if I really set my mind to it, and some I have little memory of at all. As I continued to climb, my own attachment to outcome cast a larger and deeper shadow on my relationship with the mountains. Eventually, while teetering in the wind on one high alpine summit after another, I had to ask myself “what am I still doing here? What am I not getting?”

I kept climbing mountains. Eventually, I began to realize that the peaks themselves, though physically the highest places on earth, are only encouragement, and hold no promise of attaining such heights in our own consciousness. I set out to find the high country of the mind. Others led the way:

Men ask the way to Cold Mountain

Cold Mountain: there’s no through trail.

In summer, ice doesn’t melt

The rising sun blurs the swirling fog.

How did I make it?

My heart’s not the same as yours.

If your heart was like mine

You’d get it and be right here.

How many mountains does it take to reach the high country of the mind? We often glimpse it, but how do we get there? What does it take to bring the clarity of our experience of the mountains into all aspects of our lives? When, if ever, do we saunter to the Holy Land, find Cold Mountain, the Pure Land, Ixtlan, Elysium?

The mountains themselves are just places, things, and as such they are ultimately traps. Eventually the rush of novelty passes over them like the ephemeral flush of alpenglow. We develop descriptions of the world and make agreements with others about the way things are. That which was once the most obvious: the numinous, ineffable quality of nature, becomes increasingly lost to us as our attention shifts to a phenomenal nature described in greater and greater detail. If we are not vigilant we bring the chatter and clatter and busyness of the marketplace with us wherever we go, and our forays into the mountains become increasingly disappointing. We keep returning there with secret hopes for an experience unusual enough to break us free of our agreements, our detailed descriptions. We come to expect something of them that ultimately we must find in ourselves. We mistake the physical emanation of the Source for the Source itself, even as we mistake the relativities of our bodies and our minds for our own eternal selves.


P1000892No one knows for sure whether Han Shan ever lived on an actual mountain which fit the descriptions of his poems. As Gary Snyder observes, when Han Shan describes Cold Mountain he is describing himself, his state of being. For Han Shan, no mountain climbs were needed to get to the high country of the mind. He was always there and always will be. Thoreau, the transcendentalist-naturalist yogic renunciate of America, did not indulge in much mountain climbing following his ascent of Mount Katahdin. For someone of his disposition, that climb was enough to push him across the threshold into the high country of the mind, and his continual access to the high country is evidenced in the works that followed his experience on Katahdin, most notably in his philosophy of wildness as articulated in his lecture, and later his essay, Walking.

Following Thoreau, John Muir spent ten years sojourning through the high country of the Sierra Nevada of California and the rest of his life in and out of the high country of the mind. I believe that these two, like Han Shan a millennium before them, passed on with the light of such high country in their eyes. There are others. But for most of us, a lifetime of climbing mountains is never enough, the mountains are mistaken for the high country of the mind and we become dependant on them, even while our experience of them diminishes, becomes dissatisfying and disappointing. I never got to meet the legendary Norman Clyde, and though I am in awe of his thousand ascents of North American mountains, I have never envied him. I do not know for certain, but I suspect (perhaps because I have observed this in myself) he passed on unfulfilled, identifying his self with his experiences of the mountains, suffering from attachment to forms, wavering at the threshold.

As I look around at the high peaks and ridges that surround this basin, it strikes me that perhaps all these years I have been headed in the wrong direction, working against gravity instead of with it, climbing up mountains when they themselves are headed down. It strikes me that the ultimate source of every mountain is the sea, and that their story from the moment of their conception is one of gravity and water working together to bring every particle of them to the ocean. The bigger the mountain, the more this is true. I am reminded of the profundity of the hydrological cycle and its implications for the journey of the human soul. We are born like moisture vapor from the sea, gathered into clouds and rained or snowed down upon the world. We spend some time as snowpack, a few eons perhaps in the body of a glacier, then we are released into swift meltwater streams. We become creeks and lakes and rivers, move through plants and animals, eventually, inexorably, drawn back to the source from which we came, until, as the saying goes in the East, “the dewdrop slides into the shining sea.”

This evening, these truths are especially evident in the rapid ablation of the snowpack, the steady exposure of granitic bedrock, the cracking and breaking up of lake ice, the release of the bare ground of gravel flats and alpine meadows, and the cold tumult of a hundred rills and runnels and meltwater streams all rushing downslope. Even now, as the land settles into the stillness of night, the water is ever on the move, flowing down a hundred thousand mountains, over and across the curvature of earth, going back to its source. An ancient passage from the Tao The Ching runs through my mind: “To go far is to return home.” And I am reminded of the even more ancient yogic prayer: “Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone beyond beyond, and beyond that to thy homage.”

I stare awhile at the steady flow of water moving through the slotted outlet of Sky Blue Lake, then set my foot to the stone and begin to follow the water down.

My home was at Cold Mountain from the start,

Rambling among the hills, far from trouble.

Gone, and a million things leave no trace

Loosed, and it flows through the galaxies

A fountain of light, into the very mind—

Not a thing, and yet it appears before me:

Now I know the pearl of the Buddha-nature

Know its use: a boundless perfect sphere.




David Gilligan is a wilderness traveler, a naturalist and a writer.  He teaches natural history and philosophy courses and leads wilderness expeditions for Sterling College, and has worked previously for Prescott College and the Sierra Institute.  His work and personal interests have taken him far afield to mountain regions around the globe.  His books include The Secret Sierra, In the Years of the Mountains, Rise of the Ranges of Light and Nature, Culture, Consciousness.






Bernbaum, Edwin. 1990. Sacred Mountains of the World. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.


Gilligan, David Scott. 2006. In the Years of the Mountains. New York: Thunder’s Mouth.


Lane, Beldon C. 1998. The Solace of Fierce Landscapes. New York: Oxford University Press.


MacFarlane, Robert. 2003. Mountains of the Mind. New York: Pantheon.


Price, Larry. 1981. Mountains and Man. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Snyder, Gary. 2009. Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems. Berkeley: Counterpoint.


Teale, Edwin Way. 2001. The Wilderness World of John Muir. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.


Thoreau, Henry David. 1950. The Maine Woods. New Haven: College and University Press.

Land in the Sky: Red Apple Rest

Red-Apple-Rest-iRed Apple Rest was a famous highway stop along Route 17 in Tuxedo, New York. The cafeteria-style restaurant opened in 1931 and for decades did a booming business. Several generations of vacationers regarded this place as the psychological halfway point between New York City and the hotels of the Catskill Mountains. Open twenty-four hours, it was a favorite late night haunt of Borscht Belt comedians coming home from their gigs. In its heyday, over a million people a year stopped at Red Apple Rest to grab a bite and visit the comfort stations. It was a travelers’ paradise.

All that changed in the 1970s, when the popularity of the Catskill resorts began to fade. Even so, Red Apple Rest managed to hang on, despite fewer and fewer motorists frequenting the establishment. Then one day in 2006 somebody taped a handwritten sign to the door: “we went away for a graduation and vacation.” The place had gone dark. Those sad sack words hung there for months on end, till at last they were worn by the weather into illegibility. One day the town’s building inspector showed up and covered over the blankness with a new sign bearing one solemn word: “Condemned.”

When I was a kid in the early sixties, my family occasionally stopped at the busy but already declining Red Apple Rest on our way to the Catskills. The sprawling restaurant parking lot was invariably jammed with cars and buses of the summer hordes. My brothers and I did not like the food served there—we thought it tasted like World War II. By that point, we had already sampled the dubious pleasures of a fast food joint called Carrols. It was part of a chain that soon became known as Burger King. As the years passed, fewer and fewer vehicles were to be seen in the parking lot at Red Apple Rest. Coyotes and bears began nosing around the dumpsters out back. The asphalt gave way to tall weeds and scrubby trees.

The last time I visited Red Apple Rest was Memorial Day weekend 2005. I had been driving all day along unfamiliar back roads in the surrounding lake and hill country. I came upon the dismal remains of the eatery almost by accident. It was quite late in the day. Thickening shadows had already frightened off what sunlight lingered in the vicinity. The parking lot was vacant but the front door was propped open with an old wooden milk crate. Feeble neon light was spilling out from within, giving up the ghost. A pale “Open” sign hung in the window.

Common sense told me to keep driving but nostalgia demanded a comfort stop, so I pulled in and got out of the car. I could hear the drone of the nearby Thruway. I walked up to the door and stepped inside. Nobody was around that I could see. The air was old and smelled like a charnel house for every bad diner meal ever dished up in America. Immediately on the right was an old style cafeteria turnstile. Next to it was a sign that said “Enter Here.” An ancient clock on the wall proclaimed the wrong time. An empty standing wooden coat rack stood, inexplicably, in the middle of the serving area. Far in the back was a dim doorway with a sign above it that bore a more hopeful word—“Bar”—but it was blocked by a savagely glowing case of Snapple drinks. I snapped a few photos. Wouldn’t you?

That’s when I noticed, in the murky recesses of the dining room, a disconsolate family gathered at what appeared to be Sunday dinner. They sat in vintage cafeteria chairs around a vintage cafeteria table. Something told me they were not customers—they were something else. Something vapory. In a single grim motion, they all looked up at me and stared expressionless in silence. I waved a timid hello. No one waved back. No one broke the silence. What’s that they say about seeing ghosts, that they only appear if you are willing to meet them halfway? Apparently I had crossed that line. They also say: never do that, never cross the line. Not if you want to come back.

So I turned around and hurried out into what little light remained.Red-Apple-Rest-ii

Postcard: Austin, Texas

Swimming holes are essential to making it through the summer in some places. Austin, Texas, is one of those places. While mountain biking in the Barton Creek drainage one 93-degree day last week, I was dirty, sticky, and bloodied from an endo onto rock when I came across this hole just outside downtown Austin. If I didn’t have to be somewhere, I would have spent the rest of my day in this water. From the looks of the dogs chasing sticks and toys in the foreground, their calendars were free. (Click image to enlarge.)

Photo by Devon O'Neil
Photo by Devon O’Neil

Land in the Sky: Another Story

Collie-Puppy-with-StickHalf inch of rain overnight on Paradise Hill in the Catskill Mountains. Then a day of gray mist and green-gold light. The collie puppy chews on a stick out in the yard. A wood thrush is singing in the woods.

Now a voice on the radio tells the story of a shooting yesterday in Las Vegas. A well-armed young couple killed three people, including two police officers who were just sitting eating their lunch in a pizza joint. Then the young couple went across the street into Walmart, killed another person, and made their last stand deep in the aisles of the megastore. They were soon surrounded by police. A gunfight ensued. In the end, the woman killed her husband, then herself. She was from Indiana and used to work at a place called Hobby Lobby. “Completely senseless,” says the radio voice. Today this is news. Tomorrow is another story.

The collie puppy has tired of the stick. He returns to the house. I pour some buttermilk into his bowl. He likes buttermilk. The wood thrush continues his song.

Walking in LA: The Restoration of a Once Dead River

The Restoration of the LA River Words and Photos by Mike Medberry

LA River lost in the cloudsNo one ever suggested that I should walk the Los Angeles River to determine if it had a grand future. A friend from Boise laughed and offered that it’s too damned late for that dried up trickle. My response? “Take a hike before you speak!” And that’s exactly what I did—I walked from the mountains to the ocean, along the path of the much derided, much degraded LA River. I took photographs of it while on the way and what I learned was astounding.

The LA River begins in the Santa Susana and San Gabriel Mountains in Los Angeles County and flows into the San Fernando Valley, through Los Angeles and Pasadena, emptying into the Pacific Ocean at the port of Long Beach. It runs through the city of LA, beside anonymous industrial buildings, railroad tracks, under overpasses, and over sacred land. On certain days, it has even raged, wrapping around the pylons of bridges and carrying houses on its back like a demon gone wild. The LA River was once upon a time an ephemeral stream, coming and going with the ardent rains, but otherwise it was mostly a dry gulch. Swamps and lakes existed in the early years of the twentieth century on its plains above the ocean where houses now lay.

Ephemeral streams, however, are notoriously sneaky, they flash-flood or sleep, flowing in a torrent or a trickle, and it was just these conditions that led to incarceration of the LA River. People who had valuable buildings along this slow meandering river were surprised in the 1930s to see the water rising above their eyeballs and raging down the watercourse, ripping along with it their lives, homes, possessions, and fragile hopes. Naturally they angered and blamed the confounded river rather than themselves for building in the dry floodplain.

In 1933, 400 homes washed away and in 1938, 115 people died and 5,600 homes were destroyed. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, with growing fame for it feats of controlling nature and building a few flood control dams, answered the calls for help in 1934 and 1938 and throughout the 40’s. The LA River became nothing but an anonymous series of concrete ditches as the work of the Corps and hundreds of volunteers proceeded. By their hands, the LA River was tamed and the river lost.

Today the LA River is the most thoroughly urbanized and channelized large stream in the nation. This distinction is epitomized by its being jailed in an engineered-to-perfection concrete ditch for 40 miles of its 51-mile length. Today the river is displayed to the eyes of citizens in mere glances from the freeway and behind fences, as if it were a prisoner, shamed, criminalized, and pitied, relegated to a trickle in an expansive ditch of sterile concrete.

I’ve been curious about this switchblade river that I’ve seen since I was a child living in Hancock Park in LA. The river has always been there, diligently, patiently, painstakingly working out a plan to escape. It is said in Ecclesiastes that there is a time for everything. If that’s true, now is the time for the LA River. The Corps of Engineers has prepared an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) entitled “The Los Angeles River Ecosystem Integrated Report” which weighs several alternatives and has made a tentative choice that would cost $804 million. The citizens, Mayor Garcetti, and city council in the City of LA heavily supported an alternative would cost $1.08 billion to implement. The City has ponied up an additional $44 million to do the more complete work, connecting the many pocket parks, daylighting Verdugo Wash, and forming a marsh in Piggyback Yard. This engineering outfit, the Corps of Engineers, has had a “Come-To-Jesus” revelation with the people of LA and the people, it appears, are winning. The final decision is expected by the end of this year.

I began walking in Long Beach at the mouth of the river where it mixes with the ocean and from there I walked on the concrete canal of the river for twenty miles through a dozen hidden impoverished towns, up toward Boyle Heights and through Hollywood, then another 15 miles to Burbank, and yet another 15 or so to Studio City, Canoga Park, and the headwaters in the Santa Susana Mountains. The following set of photographs tell the story of my hike, what I saw, and the people I met—the life of a river that could be on the brink of restoration. Man fishing1] A man fishing in the estuary of the confluence of the LA River and the Pacific Ocean, with a posted warning that one shouldn’t eat the fish caught here. He had several fish, which, he said, helped him live. Fortunately, he shared his sunscreen with me.   Along the lower river The lower few miles of the LA River were broad and bleak, with people riding bicycles every-which-way on the concrete trails and roads. The river crosses, like a movie-shoot, through the landscape. It’s colorblind, ignoring all economic classes, religions, and skin color on its way downstream. For many miles of the river, the bank is made of concrete to control major floods that flow down it almost annually in the spring. The river is lined with flood protection banks and levees for most of its length and these were designed in the 1930’s to protect all of the land around them from inundation. But developers built around the river, which made the few floods a growing danger and the banks were built higher and higher. Soon people forgot that there was a living river in LA.   shopping cart in channel Shopping carts are postcard photos of the LA River. You see them on the concrete of the river bed, in the brushes beside the river, in vacant lots nearby, and by the bike paths where they are useful for tribal people to move their belongings. Each shopping cart tells a story. Here one lies belly up in the bed of the river beside Laurel Canyon Blvd.   Dead Mallard For most of my hike there was not a dead thing on the river. Most of the flying, creeping, or swimming things were alive and well. This one however, lay dead upon the concrete of the river’s bottom, desiccated, bent, and pecked-at by seagulls. Life in todays LA River drainage is always a struggle. Concrete river and Mtns When I close my eyes, this stream rages beside palm trees and the San Gabriel Mountains as it floods. That was yesterday before the concrete, freeways, factories, and a few million people had moved in on it. Now it is a docile, broad sheet of water occasionally trying to climb out of its banks, but I still get the feeling that the river’s soul longs to rise and flow in sinuous, graceful curves.   friends Before I got to hiking along the LA I had to find its course (freeway maps were not so good…) so I climbed up the highest hill in Elysian Park. As I looked over the city and the river, I met a group of people drinking beer and looking like trouble. They were no trouble after all. They were kind and shared their beer with me. We talked about the river and the joys of living in LA. They flashed their love to me. I told them: “Come visit me in Idaho.”   Graffitti2 It got a little dicey here along the railroad tracks in Piggyback Yard with graffiti, fences, machinery, locomotives, and people making their way away from the human world. I did not linger to ask their reasons. My mistake was that a couple of men saw me carrying an expensive camera which might’ve been valuable to them. It was only visible when I used it to take pictures and I couldn’t resist taking a couple of shots. I ran. I ran and ran a mile and more down the tracks in the coming darkness and jumped the fence where someone had cut a survival hole. Then I was free of worry on the river where I could see that no one was coming for me or my fancy-schmancy camera.   The frog in frogtown This frog was painted on a wall at “Frog Town,” a place full of graffiti art on the otherwise bleak blanks of the LA River. Two ducks on the river The next day was full of the wonder in nature. Clearly this middle part of the river would gain value with the restoration that is proposed by the Corps of Engineers. For ten or so miles, the river was a river for real. The river bottom was natural because the water table was high, forcing the water to the surface. Ducks swam in it, many people recreated in it, flowers and trees grew near it, grasses grew verdantly, and water was clearer here in the middle reach. The LA River felt cool. My mind felt at ease. The reason that the river was running at a regular rate was the consequence of the Donald Tillman Water Reclamation Plant which turns raw sewage from the San Fernando Valley into clear, mostly clean water. The river was no longer an ephemeral river but a perennial river that supported many kinds of wildlife in the City of Los Angeles for four seasons. It could flood and not kill, as it had in the 30s, because of the high river banks and levees that did not intrude on the river most of the time.   Shopping cart 4 Upstream from the Tillman Reclamation Plant the river looks leprous, contagious, and bleak; it seems uncared for and feeble. It is fed primarily by overflow water from residential lawns and gardens. Here there is no dilution of the clean sewage from the Plant for poisonous sewage. Concrete has regained primacy over the river and it is tame, extinguished, dying. It seems to be a dream of one who wants to control and straighten out all of the world. It is the death of the creative mind, this upstream river.   Headwater of LA River I had to drive upstream 5 miles to the top of the drainage in the Santa Susana Mountains and came to the former site of the Santa Susana Field Station. I looked upstream, and took this picture. It is a Zen rock garden on a magnificent scale! There was no one there in sight. I wondered why. Unknown-2 The Santa Susana Field Station in 1990. Now it is gone but not forgotten. I inquired with the station guard if I could see where the Field Station was. He told me “no.” “Why?” “It’s private property.” “I thought it was owned by NASA. NASA is a public organization. It should be open to the public.” “It is also owned by Boeing and, in any case, you can’t go inside without an escort.” “Oh, I see,” I said, and my cousin, my driver, turned the car around. I got out of the car to take a last look at the highest drainage of the LA River. Later I made a few calls and found out that the Santa Susana Field Station was the site of a rocket test facility and held 10 nuclear reactors on the site. One of the nuclear reactors melted-down and sent radiation out to the world in 1959, the sort of meltdown that dwarfs Three-Mile Island’s 1979 disaster. None of those 10 reactors was shielded to block the radiation from escaping, so anyone nearby was irradiated. That is unthinkable in today’s world. In 1997, a UCLA report showed that lab employees at the Santa Susana Field Station had three times the rate of cancer than the general population. In 2012 the dismantled field station was tested by the EPA and found to retain radiation left by the reactors and TCE (trichloroethane, in this case it was a coolant) from the rocket engine testing. So that is why I was not allowed to go inside this 2,668 acre field station. Within 10 miles of the former reactor, half a million people are living near LA. All of them are probably safe, but I thought of all the floods that have washed the soil from the top portion of the mountains and into the Los Angeles River. I can’t imagine where that radiation is today, but I suppose it is diluted. I hope that dilution will be the solution to pollution. But apparently it isn’t yet detoxified.   Coyote crosswalk As I was looking over the gorgeous landscape, a coyote ran across the road beside the field station guard post and a water tank. Where had it come from? The coyote was only there for a blink. I wondered how it had survived in this harsh landscape, but there it was surviving and fine—at home in this astonishing landscape. It walked on casually and simply disappeared from sight.   Mike Medberry is the author of On the Dark Side of the Moon: A Journey to Recovery.