Freedom Within

John Cassian once wrote that it is twice as difficult to uproot our vices, which strive within us, than it is to acquire virtue. We are twice as likely to be bound by the things inside of us, than we are to be enslaved by the things outside. Therefore we must pay twice as much attention to the emotions and desires (movements) within us, which would defeat us, than to the impositions on our freedoms which may be applied upon us from without.

Our recent past has yielded many things in our world to challenge all of us; things which rile up our inner monsters: our fear, anger, selfishness of all sorts, pride and so on. None of these things come on their own however, but they are accompanied by reasons and justifications for themselves; so that we will agree to them and will allow them free reign to dwell and act within us. I may be angry at you, but I have these reasons (x, y and z), therefore its okay. I may be acting selfishly, but it’s only because of this or that. I’m afraid, therefore I can act or say these things towards you…I am justified! But I have also become enslaved; and I am becoming monstrous. Or if that word sounds too harsh—I am becoming unkind, impatient, angry, cowardly, selfish and/or unloving.

I have been distracted by my vice and my self-justification, to look outside of myself—erroneously—projecting the source of my problems onto you; while my own vices, I allow to move and act within myself with freedom and impunity. Sure, there are certainly real problems outside of us and we must respond, but wait. First and foremost, I need to clean up the problems that dwell inside of me, before I have any chance of responding helpfully to the world outside of me. Otherwise, it is more likely I will add to the problems, even if my intentions are good.

What good is freedom to be angry at my brother or sister? Or what use is freedom to enter a restaurant, or freedom to move about in this world, if I am bound by my anger, wrapped up in my fear, and blinded by my pride and selfishness? I have erred. Our world needs more forgiveness not anger. The Christian tradition holds that anger was only given to man by God, to resist the things within us which keep us from a relationship with God. Anger is not intended to be directed at our brothers and sisters in this world, regardless of the reasons and justifications that we may believe.

It is better for me to lose my freedoms in the world, than to lose my freedom from the vice which rages within my own soul. It is better for me to be free of anger towards you, so that I may also be free to forgive you. It is better for me to be free of fear towards you, so that I am free to love you, to listen to you, to hear you, to dwell peaceably beside you. I must pray every day, even every minute if I am able, to discern the still, small voice of God, who calls me to peace within my soul—I must pray, and seek to understand this God, who calls all of us to peace within, and freedom from our vices. And then I must do his will, applying myself double to the task of uprooting the things inside which enslave me; and next to freely acquire the things of love: forgiveness, mercy, kindness, patience, gentleness, humility. These are the gifts of freedom that I would like to give to you—my brothers and sisters. Forgive me for my enslavement to unlove. Pray for my freedom, and I will pray for you also.

~FS

I Had A Dream

I had a dream. Perhaps it was a nightmare. Or a vision. I was in church and I was told to wear a dress. I couldn’t participate unless I wore one. I found this absurd, but I had no say; there was no choice. Good people—it was strongly implied—would wear it. It is to protect the cross-dressers in our midst, their feelings, their emotions, their fears—as a display of solidarity with those who wear the dress. It is for our health; it is a good idea to wear it. I was assured it was for the best, that it was for the love of others that I should wear it.

I wanted communion, I wanted confession, I wanted the sacraments that the church is there for; but I couldn’t, if I wouldn’t wear a dress. It wasn’t scripture or tradition, nor canon law, nor anything to do with church that blocked me; it was an imposition from this world’s ruler imposed upon me, upon our church, barring me from participation in the Lord. No, not of the spirit, but of the flesh. But you are wrong, I am told, it is love of neighbor to wear the dress; it is obedience, it is asceticism, and this is the essence of the church.

Was it my fault then, did I only have myself to blame? The solution is so clear; just wear a dress. What’s the problem? There is no problem. Nobody is preventing you from anything; just wear a dress, and enjoy the sacraments, or whatever else you desire. And it’s been proven that wearing a dress is best, so you should comply. So, stop being a baby, stop whining, and stop your complaining; just do what we tell you. Wear a dress!

So I wore a dress. I didn’t like it, but I wore it, so I could rejoin the church. But then it wasn’t enough; next, we had to wear makeup, then words were forbidden, and logical thoughts were the next casualty, in a stream of new injunctions. All for our benefit, it is said, all for our health, all for our security, and for the love of others. And it was clear to everyone—I guess—that only narcissists or fanatics would complain about these measures. Lord, I only want communion, I only want the bread and the wine. Why all of these extravagant demands, appended, to the essence and purity of your Holy Church? Why can’t I come to you anymore, dear Lord, without all of these extraneous rules?

I looked for an ally, but I had none. I was alone in my distress. Empathy abounded, but none for me. I had become life’s problem child. Tantrums and time-outs, and then some tears for a life and a world that has disappeared. I suppose, eventually, that I awoke from that nightmare, as is natural—to awaken. Though I can’t be certain. I’m living in a new dream, one that doesn’t require I wear a dress, if I don’t want to. No, now I must wear an absurd mask and take a questionable vaccine, if I’d like to participate. Much better. I see that the nightmare continues.

~FS

Happy Trails To Us (part 5):

A tremendous gnashing of teeth ensued, not of the otherworldly disembodied type, like that spoken of in scripture; but of the worldly type, with choice expletives of a very earthy sort, with blame and accusations, and the pointing of fingers. Certainly our party’s bonhomie had been shattered; and even Barbara’s and Thadia’s unflinching devotion to Heather’s and Tom’s leadership appeared to have suffered a few cracks—manifesting silently and without overt demonstration—displayed only through their embarrassed aversion of the eyes and by their downcast glances. There were wide and disparate views on what—or who—exactly, got us into this mess, and everyone aired their opinions openly, with increasingly loud and strident tones of voice. Yet, underneath our clashing argumentation, there quietly arose a consensus experience among us—thirst—and extreme thirst; I first noticed it affecting the most vocal members of our community: the licking of lips, the smacking and clicking of the tongue, and abrupt, sudden silences of immense introspection—not brought about by clever repartee or witty rebuttals, but by the primal argument of a body with too little moisture inside.

I’m certain our bickering would have continued much longer, had it not been the end of a very long and very hot day; and had we not already been suffering from dehydration. Our complaints died down as each person one-by-one succumbed to their weariness, some of us collapsing to the earth and hanging our heads between our legs dejectedly, others of us leaning against a rock or a fellow hiker. In the waning light and shared silence, Heather meekly suggested that we should get down the trail soon, so we could set up camp before it became too dark. A dissenting voice questioned—why even hike to the bottom of the gorge at all? Since there wasn’t any water down there. Most agreed it was too far to go, and it would be better to set-up camp where we were, try to get some sleep tonight, and then in the morning decide what to do next.

The coyotes’ crazed cackling provided a deranged serenade as we tried to sleep that night—tossing and turning in our bags, or stretching a leg out the tent flap trying to cool off, some of us finally giving up the horizontal position altogether, and preferring to wander upright, near and far in the half-moonlight, like specters in the desert, silhouettes against the starry night sky.  We formed a nocturnal confederacy with the cacti; was it the liminal moonlight or delirium brought on by lack of water—something, opened the windows onto eternity, and it seemed that we were able to see into our far distant past, and see visions of our future. The sun rose, and then set. Was that a day; was it today? Or was it another day from long ago? I couldn’t be certain, and the others who wandered with me, seemed equally perplexed at the passage of time. How was it that my parents had joined the group; when had they arrived? How could they have? I wondered. They both had passed away long ago, or so I thought, but there they sat now, by the fire, enjoying themselves—toasting life, raising glasses with whoever else would join them. I smiled as I watched them, so happy to see them again, and so satisfied that they were enjoying themselves out here in the desert with us. Somebody popped a bottle of champagne and passed it around. It was the last bottle; we had drunk all the rest—dry—and there were no more. I remember someone saying we should conserve this bottle—be careful, and drink it slowly—it has to last us who knows how long, and the party is far from over. But there were more bottles back at the restaurant, only a day away; someone should run back and get some more and save the party. Yes! Get more champagne, and save the party! I cheered; and others cheered with me. Steve would go, and so would Sean, that boy with the funny antlers on his head; they were strong, so we gave them our empty bottles to return. Another guy went with them, there were so many bottles to take back, too many for only two men to carry alone. We wished them well and to hurry back. We all were thirsty, we needed more champagne.

I noticed the sun had risen. Again? How many times had it risen; it was too difficult to determine. Someone handed me the bottle of champagne, it was warm now, drink it slowly, and not too much. I nearly spit it out, it tasted like water, and maybe it was water…maybe it wasn’t champagne after all, maybe there wasn’t any champagne. I worried about my parents, I hadn’t seen them since the campfire that one night, and the desert is a dangerous place. I wanted to look for them, but I felt so tired; I decided to look for them later. I slept. When I awoke it was dark; the night had descended upon us again. And our party had revived; Steve and Sean had returned with the new bottles and everyone was drinking. There was quite a celebration: Tom and Thadia were singing, and Beckett sang along, while Randy and Trina danced around the fire, tripping and nearly falling into the flames. Tom and Samantha clapped along, and everyone kept drinking; some of us drank too fast and too much. Maggie, poor thing, threw up again; as did several others, including myself. It was like a dream, a vision from out of the deepest and darkest sleep—coming and then going. Again, I slept. When I awoke, it was light again; another morning had dawned.

The air was already thick and heavy with the heat of the coming day. It was hot, but I felt surprisingly refreshed. The delirium of the past, how many days?—had lifted; I felt clear-headed again. Looking around at the others dismantling their tents, and packing their bags with alacrity, it seemed that we all were restored to our previous state, before lack of water had taken its toll on us.  Tom called and gathered us around, and Heather informed us of a change of plan: instead of going further on this trail, we’d backtrack to the river and follow it out for a few days, and then turn around and return back to the trailhead, instead of making a round-trip as had been the original idea. Retracing our steps across the undulating desert floor was somehow comforting. Heather pointed out familiar rock formations and we nodded in recognition. Everyone seemed renewed in spirit as well as in body; embracing life with renewed vigor, having come through a close brush with death and survived. Had we nearly died back there? It was hard to say for certain. I for one was having trouble recalling the details of what had befallen us. Beckett and Sam were giddy and talkative, hopeful that the worst was behind them. Heather was back to calling out encouragements optimistically with gusto; and our group fell in line, raising arms in unison to give her our thumbs-up, as we marched across the parched landscape. New alliances had been formed through our collectively experienced trials. Steve nudged Sean and threw him off-balance as they hiked side-by-side; and they laughed together. For the first time, Sean’s electronic headgear was missing, presumably stashed into his backpack; so that he could actually hear and engage with his immediate surroundings. The change suited him. He smiled happily; that vacant stare with which he had begun our outing back at the trailhead now replaced with a joyful twinkle. Old-man Mitch had apparently earned Barbara’s respect and admiration—and vicariously, her friend Thadia’s approbation as well. Old-man Mitch had doted over Maggie, in her darkest hours, and thereby had gained this new-found status with her mother and her mother’s friend. Maggie herself had seemed to fall in love with this crusty old patriarch, and now followed close upon his steps, and clung to his every syllable; laughing at his purposely archaic turns of phrase and his acerbic wit, not to mention, his foul mouth. Tom brought up the rear and yelled out a reminder to keep hydrated, people, because it was going to be another hot one—perhaps the hottest day we’ve had so far.

(to be continued)

~FS

Happy Trails To Us (part 4):

“Thank goodness Heather and Tom figured that out!” Commented Barbara; Thadia nodded in agreement. “I guess we were a little confused about using iodine,” she added, with obvious relief spreading across her face, “But I’m glad Heather clarified that, and told us we can use it now. That will really help us. What would we do without Heather?!”

Yes, that was an excellent question, I thought. I was beginning to think we might fare rather well without her. However, I know nothing about the desert, and for better or worse, Heather has more experience out here than we do. Surely, there are better leaders to be found, but Heather and Tom are the leadership we’ve got; so, in the words of Stephen Stills, adapted somewhat, “If you can’t be with the one you trust, honey; trust the one you’re with.” Maybe my standards are too high, after all, and a few mistakes with snakes and water-filters is to be expected when on an adventure in the desert wilderness. Additionally, nobody has died yet, so what am I complaining about? Yes, thanks to their best intentions—or in spite of them—we’ve fared fairly well thus far; and both Barbara and Thadia are clearly enamored by Heather, despite any perceived setbacks. The heat and the iodine must have begun to take a toll on me—why should I worry—just enjoy the journey I told myself; and yet, I felt a foreboding and slightly ominous cloud hanging over our community now, an uneasy and sticky feeling, like the sweat-drenched shirt clinging to my back, and I couldn’t shake it or ignore it, even in the midst of my growing delirium.

The next morning we broke camp and continued up the trail in hopes of meeting with the river again by the end of the day. Most of the sick were feeling better again, although several of us were still weak from having lost too many bodily fluids. We hiked slowly today. Even so, some stragglers still fell behind, and our numbers spread haphazardly across the barren and undulating desert floor. Heather, indefatigably, continued calling out to us and offering encouragement. Optimistically, we returned her call, giving the thumbs up, while gazing down at our tired feet trodding across the dusty landscape, carrying us further into the unknown. We stopped for lunch at a rocky outcropping, which provided minimal shade from the summer sun. Beckett and Sam weren’t looking too good, but by comparison they appeared the picture of health, when viewed with Barbara’s teenage daughter Maggie, who sat beside them on the rocks. Her brother Sean, had given up teasing her with gory stories of vipers slain. Instead, he looked worriedly at her out of the corner of his eye, while pretending to adjust his headphones, which appeared to be a permanent appendage upon his head.

The long afternoon passed slowly, and the wild sun seemed unwilling to leave the desert sky. I imagined that I could actually see solar flares flaming, and radiating outward from that violent orb, as it stood vibrant, silently protesting against the pale blue sky. I recalled to memory my thoughts when I had originally booked my place in this adventure, the excitement and anticipation I had of immersing myself—though safely guided—within the strangeness and innocent danger of the desert environs. This remembrance spurred me to gratitude as I hiked now, inspiring my emotions, and stimulating my senses to reach out to my surroundings, to allow the spare beauty of this empty land to embrace me. It was an indifferent and sterile embrace however, the desert didn’t seem to know I was there, or it knew but just didn’t care. I smiled to myself, to hide the terror I felt rising within me, from the knowledge that this world was indifferent to me and to my existence. Thankfully, I was not alone. I looked around me at the others sharing in this adventure—a rag-tag, motley assemblage of humanity, all bowed and hunched, and laid low by the bitter heat which pressed down on us, and from the sour water which had depleted us. Even so, we marched onward, even poor Maggie.

The girl was in bad shape. I could see that every step was difficult for her, but she was brave, and she summoned that inner strength that humans are known for, to meet the challenge. There comes a point, where even the bravest can go no further, but we hadn’t reached that point yet. We still had recourse to humor, that mainstay and bulwark against oppression, which gives one hope in the face of helplessness. As we are beaten down, irony rises up; and laughter in the face of defeat can heal us. Few things bind us together more closely—strengthening the bonds of brother and sisterhood—than a shared laugh in times of great trials. Taking these thoughts as inspiration, I began to sing for tired Maggie:

“Happy Trails…to you!…Until, we meet, again!…Who cares that there’s no clouds when we’re together; just sing a song and bring more sunny weather!!!” She cracked a smile; she knew irony—like we needed any more sun! I smiled, and sang a little more loudly for the others in our group, and a few joined in:

“Some trails are happy; and some are blue!…It’s the way you ride the trails that counts, this one’s for you!…Happy Trails to you!…until we meet again!!!”

Everyone laughed. I may be wrong, but it seemed that Maggie stepped more lively after that; and eventually—finally—the sun gave up for the day, and reluctantly began to set. A cooling breeze blew directly into our faces, and Heather declared that just ahead we’d reach the rim of the gorge, just there where the trail hooked sharply to the right, and from there we would be able to look down to the river. It would then be only a short descent, not longer than twenty minutes, to bring us to the water’s edge, where we would camp for the night, after a refreshing swim of course. It is hard to overestimate the relief her words provided to us then, as we each reveled in our private vision of those healing waters. What happened next however, is inestimable, the demoralizing effect it had on all of us, as the scene we encountered at the edge of the world, utterly deflated our hopes and blew up our inner visions of paradise.  

We came up to the edge of the gorge, each in our own time, one-by-one, each of us adding our own particular brand of surprise, anguish, bewilderment, or disorientation to the collective response, as we all gazed down searchingly into the canyon, down to its dry and arid bottom—a dusty and windswept channel where the river was supposed to be flowing.

“Motherfu****!” exclaimed Mitch. “Where is the river?!” cried Samantha, with Beckett feebly echoing her—but in an empty and droning soft little voice, devoid of all emotion, or rather, filled with the emotion of utter defeat.

Heather quickly pulled out her map and scanned it, craning her neck forward to get a closer look in the dwindling light. She then looked up again from her map, and scanned the canyon—searching desperately to the left and then to the right—then back down at the map, and then back into the gorge again; apparently she was trying to conjure up a river, magically, by sheer will and hope, with the help of her trusty map.  But her powers failed her, and the river continued to be not there. Often, in deserts, people see mirages, hopeful oases of lush foliage and refreshing waters, that aren’t truly there. But ours was the opposite, we only saw desert dryness in the place where water had been promised. Was it a lie? Or only a mistake? Another mistake in the desert, where we should come to expect mistakes; isn’t that correct? This one stung more than most; most of us were out of water by now, or very close. The last known source of water was a day, perhaps two days behind us, possibly even further, now that we were already so tired and dehydrated. It was not difficult to interpret the meanings of the expressions on the faces of our group members. For a long time nobody spoke, we stood in shocked silence, our bodies frozen and unable to move, though our minds were racing, and our thoughts were spinning wildly. It was no longer time to sing “Happy Trails”. No, we were now well past that point.

(to be continued)

~FS

Parts 1-3:

Happy Trails To Us

It was a late summer morning, the air was crisp—it was early in the day—but with a strong hint of warmth blowing in from the south. A faint cool breeze also rose from the gorge below us, as a fading counterpoint and last gasp of opposition to the overpowering heat we all expected would be our companion for the days ahead. Our small group had gathered at the trailhead and we chatted amongst ourselves as we waited for stragglers to arrive. We were novice hikers at best, about to enter a difficult and dangerous wilderness for a two-week excursion, hoping to get through the adventure alive, and also to make a few good memories along the way.

Everyone was cordial, none of us knew the others in the group very well, most of us meeting the others here, at the trailhead, for the first time. A nervous anticipation made several members of our entourage extra talkative; a young couple sitting inside the open hatch of their Subaru were speaking loudly, and rapidly to the mother of a mother-son-daughter trio, telling them all about their recent trip whitewater rafting. The mother listened attentively while sipping her coffee, nodding affirmation and approval as they told their tale, while her teens stared vacantly at our surroundings—bored already.

Before embarking on our journey, the two leaders of our excursion called us all together, to gather around in a circle for formal introductions, as a first step towards building the all-important community that we would need in order to make the trip a success—for fun and for safety, and for survival. They introduced themselves—Heather, and Tom—and confirmed our hopes and expectations; that they both had many years of experience in guiding tours throughout the backcountry. They were both very amiable and exuded confidence, and set the proper tone of fun, measured with wisdom. The group fed on their charisma, and folks were pumped-up, and ready to rock!

Everyone gathered up their things: donning backpacks, adjusting straps—tightening down tents and sleeping bags which had been packed atop or below their bags—we checked our water-bottles and re-tied our shoelaces. One or two of us ran back quickly to our cars, to get something they had forgotten, or to make sure they had locked their doors. Heather led the group down the trail, and Tom brought up the rear; we started off at a brisk pace. “The wilderness won’t wait for us forever.” he said, “It’s time to make our mark, and conquer our fears!” We cheered at his brief but inspiring exhortation, as we marched along, and the cool dust filled our nostrils, and the sun rose higher over our heads, up into the blue and open sky.   

We stopped several hours later, mid-morning, for a rest and to drink some water, before continuing on. As we sat scattered within a small area—some of us in little groups, with our backs leaning up against the cliff-face, which we had been following for most of the morning—Heather gave us a foretaste of our itinerary for the day. We’d be continuing up the gorge for the rest of the morning, and then stopping for lunch at a beautiful overlook, which provided vast panoramic views of the surrounding mesas, the crawling river down below, and the dark mountains far-off in the distance. Tom interjected when some of us expressed surprise, and concern, at the name of the overlook—Rattlesnake Ridge. “Ha! That’s just an old name, nothing to worry about. There haven’t been snakes there for years,” he comforted us. He went on to explain how the climate in the area had been changing and there was no longer enough water up there—or moisture even—on that ridge, to sustain life; so, without water, there’s no prey, and without prey there’s no snakes. One in our group raised a small objection, noting that it had been an unusually wet summer so far, and wondered, could they have come back? No, he then assured us compassionately, it doesn’t work like that, these kinds of changes happen over long periods of time, and a few simple rains won’t change anything. He chuckled, to set us all at ease, and said we’d be about as likely to see a snake up there as we would to see Bigfoot or the Abominable Snowman. And we all laughed.

The morning hike was beautiful, but already getting hot. Between the searing reds of the surrounding rock, the deep blues of the sky overhead, and the pure whites of the passing clouds it felt as though we had been dropped in the midst of a great, undulating American flag. The river, far below us—sparkling—reflected the bright summer sunlight so that, those of us without sunglasses, had to turn our heads, or squint and blink to keep our eyes from shedding tears. Everything was light, everything was bright, and by the time the sun passed directly overhead, there were no shadows. Not long after that, we reached Rattlesnake Ridge.

With sighs of relief we pulled our heavy backpacks from our shoulders and let them slide down to the ground. Again, we all found a spot to sit, some of us on boulders, some simply on the dirt. Our guides were absolutely right, the views from this spot were breathtaking. Cameras and cell-phones emerged and photos abounded; one young lady getting a bit too close to the edge as she snapped the perfect selfie, but she was caught just in time, and pulled back onto solid ground by our guide, Heather, before anything terrible happened. We ate our lunch, enjoying the scenery, and it was about the same time, when Tom had announced we’d be moving along soon, when one of the older men in the group, Mitch, made a commotion from his spot on a low ledge just off from the main group.

He leapt into the air, cursing, and jumped down from the ledge. To his right and to his left several small creatures slithered off the ledge rapidly and quickly disappeared into the dark crags which abounded in the vicinity; and one large rattlesnake followed directly in his wake. It came right after him, and looked to be attacking. Before he could catch his balance completely, or could find his legs beneath him, the darned thing struck. It hit his left boot and bounced off; and looked to have gotten its nose smushed against the hard leather. Stunned for a brief moment, but long enough for Mitch to gather his wits, Mitch then struck back—as the snake tried to gather its own wits—and, raising his very same boot in the air, Mitch brought it down decisively upon the creature’s slithery head. That was the final act in their battle; the long muscular body writhing and twirling for several moments, before going limp.

The onlookers had mixed feelings. Several gasped, one turned away unable to watch, and two smiled surreptitiously and winked at one another, while shaking their heads in disbelief. After a moment, a collective sigh let out, apparently nobody had been breathing throughout this altercation. And then the reactions came: Man! I can’t believe it came after you like that!…How dare you, how could you kill it?!…It was coming right at me, it was him or me!…That snake didn’t have any choice, poor thing, it’s just living by instinct, but you had a choice, you should be ashamed!…Boy, those are some good boots you’ve got!…I think I’m going to be sick!…I can’t believe he crushed its head, that was disgusting, hee-hee!…What choice did he have?!…Well, I guess we’d better be looking out for Bigfoot now!

Then someone offered the suggestion, that maybe we should pack up and get out of there, because there are an awful lot of creepy holes everywhere, and maybe there are more snakes where these came from. Another person reminded everyone of the other snakes which we had all seen just moments ago, slithering off into the holes just over there; what if they come back? This caused a general commotion, and a flurry of activity, as folks hoisted their bags onto their backs, with some hikers starting off quickly down the trail without even strapping their bags in place.

Our group regained a semblance of order several hundred yards further on; Heather retook the lead and Tom brought up the rear once again. We walked in single-file to avoid any accidents, as the trail became very narrow, with a precipitous drop on our left-hand side. From the general conversation it was clear that the snake episode had done little to foster a sense of unity among us, but had rather acted more like a wedge in the midst of our fledgling community. Several members whispered amongst themselves that they had some doubts about leader Tom’s authority; others were appalled by old-man Mitch’s heartless cruelty. Barbara’s teenage son however, for the first time all day, was animated as he recounted the viper’s death scene in all its gory detail to his reluctant sister, who covered both ears with her hands, and sang at the top of her lungs to drown out his oration.

By evening, as we set up camp and ate our dinner, it seemed that folks had come around to the recognition that we are all in this together—for the next two weeks anyway—so we should make the best of it, and try to get along. Expert Tom never brought up his mistake about Rattlesnake Ridge, so we let the incident go without further reflection. After a good meal followed up by smores, we retired to our tents under a moonless night, as the dysphonic cackle of coyotes rose in the distance.

The next morning Heather called us together to give us the upcoming itinerary, with an important caveat that we’d be leaving the river late in the day, and cutting across open territory for the next twenty-four hours or so; with little opportunity for fresh water; so, when we get down to the river—which we’d be doing soon, in a few hours—we all should be sure to fill our water bottles to the brim, and plan on conserving. By morning of the day after tomorrow, we’d be back to the river’s edge, with all the water we can drink. One final thing, the water in this area isn’t safe to drink without treatment—it is filled with bacteria—so everyone should use the water-filters that either she or Tom had brought along with them, when filling their water-bottles—unless they want a bad case of the runs; which she wouldn’t recommend…since there’s no laundry service out here, and she doubts anyone packed enough underwear with them. We all laughed.

The second day was hotter than the first. The cool air from the nighttime lingered briefly but soon burned off entirely, and by lunchtime we all were baking; and any exposed skin was beginning to turn as red as the surrounding rocks. Thankfully we had finally reached the river, and most of us took a dip to cool off. Heather and Tom pulled out their water-filters. Old-man Mitch, along with his newly formed cohort—Steve, another old-timer, and a couple in their fifties, Trina & Randy—sat together at the river’s edge watching the rest of us floating and splashing. They weren’t interested in getting wet, or disrobing, and were happy just watching. Beckett and Samantha, or Sam as she preferred to be called—the young, nervous couple from the back of the Subaru—were hovering not far from Heather, in hopes of being first in line to use one of the water-filters. They looked a bit haggard from the heat, but the anxiety which showed in their eyes also enlivened them in a strange, beleaguered way, giving them both the appearance of insomniacs.

As folks were drying themselves off, a shriek and then an ensuing argument broke the relative quiet: Heather looked incredulously at Tom and asked him, “Why on earth would you just drop your pack there, on the other side of that rock, without looking first?! You dropped it right on the water-filter…you probably broke it!” To which Tom retorted, “Well, why the heck would you put the filter back there, hiding, where nobody can see it?!”

“To keep it safe, you moron!” She answered, rolling her eyes and throwing both arms up in the air, whipping her hands with a short flick and spreading her fingers for emphasis. She leaned over the rock and pushed the pack to the side, and pulled out the filter from underneath. Examining it closely, she shook her head quickly from side to side, as she tried to pull the handle up to release the plunger from the filter-body. She grimaced as she pulled harder on the handle, and the shaft came partly out before stopping again. She pushed and pulled several times, shaking it between attempts, before finally throwing it down, in disgust, against the rock—inadvertently, in her anger, making absolutely certain that it was broken. Tom, looked on coolly, with feigned nonchalance and drooping eyes, and asked her slowly, “Was that the best idea?” Beckett and Sam took several steps backward and looked at one another anxiously, and Beckett let out a nervous laugh. Heather closed her eyes and sighed deeply, letting her shoulders sag before answering, “No…no, that probably wasn’t.”

All eyes were on our guides and a hush had overtaken us, as we waited to see what would happen next. Tom stated the obvious, “Well, that filter is toast…but at least we still have mine.” He walked forward to his backpack and rummaged through it for a moment before pulling out the other water-filter. “Well folks!” He called out loudly, holding the filter up in the air and turning about in a circle. “We need to be very careful with this one, it’s all we’ve got!” Nobody laughed. But there were quite a few nervous glances between hikers, before Heather gave us an impromptu pep-talk:

“It’s okay, we’re going to be alright, better than alright…we’re gonna be great! These are the best filters on the market, and one can easily handle the demands of our entire group—and then some! It will only take a little longer with one filter than with two, but we’ve got time, so let’s line up and get going! Sooner we get our bottles filled up, the sooner we can get back on the trail!” No further mention was made about her unfortunate outburst, or Tom’s unfortunate carelessness. We all supposed it was just water under the bridge; if our leaders didn’t feel any further need to address it, then why should we?

As the members of our group were taking turns using the filter, old-man Mitch and his friends stayed seated were they were. Tom called out to them, saying they should bring their bottles over, to which Mitch answered that no, they were good, they didn’t need the filter, they were using Steve’s iodine tablets to disinfect their water.

“Woah! Wait a minute!” Heather exclaimed, and took a few steps towards the iodine contingent. “No! That’s not alright.” She emphasized the words as she looked around at the other members of our hiking community. “Folks, I want you all to know, iodine is not safe. That might have been something we used in the past, but you really should never resort to that means of disinfecting water anymore. Especially now that we have modern filtration which is far superior. At the very least, if you don’t have a filter, you should only use chlorine-dioxide tablets, they are safe, but never use iodine. It is extremely damaging to the thyroid.” She turned back towards Mitch and Steve, “I would really prefer it if you’d use the filter, I’m responsible for everyone here, and I just don’t want anyone to get hurt.” Steve looked as if he’d been caught with his hand in a cookie jar, but he quietly answered Heather, “I can understand that, I really do. But you know, I’ve been using iodine tablets to disinfect water since I was a kid, my dad always did it this way. And I’m fine, even after sixty years of it. Well, maybe I’m not fine, I’ll leave that up to others, but I feel fine!” Trina and Randy chuckled at this, and Trina added, “My grandfather used to take my brothers and I out on camping trips and he always used iodine too, and I turned out okay!”  

Heather looked at Tom, and he shrugged. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and negotiated, “Since you’ve already used the tabs in your bottles, go ahead and use it this time, but after this one time, let’s all just use the filter in the future, okay? It is much safer. Science has come a long way since you were kids you know. And I mean no disrespect by that. We just should follow the best practices, so that everyone will be okay out here. You don’t want us to have to carry you out of here, do you? That wouldn’t be fair to anyone.”

Mitch nodded approval, and the others followed. “We can play along. We’ll be model citizens from now on! Only water-filters from now on!” Heather smiled, and the rest of us breathed a sigh of relief, somehow feeling that we had dodged a potentially lethal bullet, aimed at the heart of our community.


The afternoon heat intensified, with the rays of the sun pummeling our bodies and eroding our resolve, and sapping our energy, so that each additional step, taking us moment-by-moment deeper into that desert wilderness, also seemed to stultify our minds, rendering us all temporarily dim-witted. Heather worked hard from the front of the line to keep us engaged with our surroundings, calling our attention to particular details of interest: the adaptive strategies of the desert milkweed, the beautiful and strange markings found on the wide variety of lizards indigenous to this part of the desert, and the amazing sense of smell which leads turkey vultures, like the ones up ahead, to dead animals. About a half hour later we passed by the carcass of a dead mammal—probably a coyote, though maybe a fox, Heather said—with several vultures gathered around it, sharing the meal.

As the afternoon wore on, the sun began its descent, which brought relief from the focused intensity of its light; all day long it had felt as though we were under the beam of an enormous magnifying glass, directed upon us by some demented child in the sky, who now was finally called home for supper—but the air around us still remained infernal. We entered a labyrinthine landscape of narrow gorges, with trails leading helter-skelter in all directions. Heather stopped to examine her trail-map more closely. As Barbara looked on from several paces away—taking small comfort in the thin shade of a scrappy looking little desert tree, which to my eye appeared already dead—she commented to her new friend, Thadia, and to the Subaru kids, about how lucky we all are to have someone like Heather to lead the way. She’d hate to be out here all alone without someone like Heather to follow, she’d be sure to end up like that coyote we passed earlier. After a few moments Heather took a look around, seemingly perplexed, but recognizing that all eyes were upon her, she smiled confidently and raised her head defiantly, to set our minds at ease. Barbara and Thadia smiled at one another and watched Heather expectantly. I found it all unsettling however; the look of bewilderment in her eyes, coupled with the determined set of her jaw, together left me feeling apprehensive. Was it decisive confusion that I saw on her face; or was it confused certainty? Either way, it didn’t feel comforting. For the first time, Heather looked to me like the type of leader that could confidently make a colossal blunder. Glancing at the others in our group, I caught the eye of one or two, who seemed silently to express my same concern, but most everyone else didn’t seem perturbed one bit, and they were ready to follow wherever Heather might lead us.

After one or two more quick glances at her map, Heather resolutely pointed the way up one of the trails leading off to our right, and then strode off in that direction. “Come along! Compadres! We’re almost there, just an hour more and we’ll make camp for the night. There’s a beautiful little grove of Emory Oak trees that we can camp under, you’ll love it!”

“Sounds delightful!” exclaimed Thadia. “I’m all in!” added Barbara. And the rest of us fell in line, and we snaked our way up the trail, reinvigorated by hopes of a nice evening under the trees.

But two hours later, we still hadn’t arrived at the promised oak grove, and we were getting impatient. Our feet were hot and tired, and our legs ached. What’s worse, several of us began complaining of upset stomachs and intestinal pain. Heather and Tom encouraged us to keep going—the oak grove was a little farther than they had remembered it—but we’d be there soon and then we could rest, have a nice meal, and get some sleep. But even after another half-hour of hiking—there were no oak trees in sight; and when Barbara’s daughter doubled over and threw up on her shoes, Heather decided it would be better to stop where we were for the night, and abandon the oak grove. We pitched our tents in a cluster, surrounded by several Saguaro Cactus and numerous little scrubby shrubs, which Tom identified as Foothill Palo Verde.

Heather spent a lot of time with Barbara’s daughter, Maggie, getting her first to lie down and put her feet up, and then to drink more water. But slowly—just sips—because she most likely was suffering from a bit of heat-stroke and probably dehydration. Barbara, very concerned, watched on gratefully from just behind Heather’s shoulder, as Heather tended to her sick daughter—placing a cool towel on her forehead and also behind her neck. After dinner, several more in our group complained of nausea, which alarmed Tom. He wondered aloud if we all had eaten something that had gone bad, but nobody could think what it might be, since we had only eaten trail-mix, power bars, and dried meat, none of which really seemed likely to have caused our symptoms. He concluded, as Heather had, that it must be slight dehydration and some heat-stroke; with the course of treatment being more water—taken slowly—and rest. We all tried to sleep that night, with varying degrees of success. I, for one, didn’t have a great night, but counted myself fortunate because I neither had to get up to puke, nor to relieve my bowels repeatedly, like some of the others did.

By morning, the mysterious malady had affected almost everyone, though some had begun to recover, while others looked to be getting worse. Conspicuously, a small contingent were unaffected—Steve, old-man Mitch, Trina and Randy all were as healthy as ever. Again, nobody else seemed interested in this fact, though it piqued my curiosity and led me to theorize upon the potential benefits of the much-maligned iodine tablet as an effective water treatment. And this caused me to question the preferred, modern and superior water-filter which Heather had advocated. But not wanting to cause any friction, I kept my thoughts to myself. However, I did quietly ask Tom if I could take a look at the filter, just out of curiosity, wondering how the remarkable thing worked. He handed it to me cautiously, reminding me to be very careful with it, and then he returned to his horizontal position, moaning a little as he lay there. Upon close inspection, it did appear that the filter casing had been damaged, with the screw-on cover slightly pulled-apart on one side. With a little effort I was able to unscrew the top and take a look at the insides. “Tom.” I whispered. “I’m no expert about these things, but this doesn’t look right to me. Here, inside this filter—take a look.” I said, and reached out to hand the opened filter back to him. He wasn’t pleased that I had disturbed him, and was upset that I had taken the top of the filter off, but when he peered inside, he gave a low whistle and shook his head. “Not good. This thing is definitely busted. See that tear in that membrane, water is going straight through it without getting filtered. This thing is toast!” He said out loud, and then more quietly, as he covered it under his sleeping bag, and looked around to make sure nobody had heard him. He called Heather over and showed her the filter. After her initial alarm, and after the two of them realized the source of our collective illness, she knew what had to be done. We needed good water after all.

Heather walked over to talk privately with Steve and old-man Mitch. I saw her gesturing and then Steve reached into his bag, and procured two large bottles while nodding to Heather. Next, she turned to face the group of tents and called out for everyone to gather around. Once we had dragged ourselves from our bags and were all within earshot she began: “Okay everyone, it seems we have some problems with our water. I’m not exactly sure what happened, but we need to refrain from using the filter. Now, don’t worry. It’s going to be just fine. It’s okay. Steve has iodine tablets and we’re going to treat everyone’s water using that. It’s going to be just fine. We’re going to get through this!”

“But wait,” Samantha spoke up. “You said iodine is dangerous and we shouldn’t use it.”

“Iodine is completely safe,” Heather reassured everyone. “No, you must have misunderstood me. Iodine is safe when taken for short periods of time, and in limited quantities. There is nothing at all to fear about using iodine to disinfect our water.” After some confusion, and perplexed looks on the part of many of us, we gathered up our water-bottles and let Steve drop the tablets in, one by one, as prescribed.

“Thank goodness Heather and Tom figured that out!” Commented Barbara; Thadia nodded in agreement. “I guess we were a little confused about using iodine,” she added, with obvious relief spreading across her face, “But I’m glad Heather clarified that, and told us we can use it now. That will really help us. What would we do without Heather?!”

Watching The Paint Dry

There’s that saying: “it’s like watching the paint dry,” which means something is very boring and tedious. I repainted our deck several weeks ago. So, when I stepped out onto it early this morning, the paint had already been dry for quite some time. Therefore, I looked for something else to watch—with a whole day ahead of me and nothing to do—with no responsibilities looming over my head to cloud my perception, or to limit my vision. What that saying doesn’t tell us, is that whole worlds can open up before us, when we take time to “watch the paint dry”.

First thing I notice is the even rhythm of my breathing—the inflow and exhale—the cool air filling my nostrils and then warming, as it fills my lungs. And next: there is the beating of my heart—barely perceptible—but inside there, deep inside, keeping time with my breath—together providing the cadence for the symphony that is to come. Fog enfolds the conifers—cedars, firs and pines rising through the mist—dark forms hidden, and then appearing, before disappearing once more. The flight of a hawk overhead, the faint motion of the air stirred up by its wings—leaving audible traces in its wake—as it glides into the canopy of big-leaf maples to my right. The glow of morning light arises. Smaller birds awaken and call to one another, to me, to our creator. I empty my mind of useless thoughts, and joy arises to fill the vacuum therein. A quiet mind is a happy mind.

With gentle force I allow the joy of living to fill the hidden recesses of my quieted mind, and love for God accumulates—abounding and increasing in density within me—so that the usual disturbed, and disturbing actions of my unruly thoughts have no place to land—so that they fall away, and drift off to who knows where. There is sunlight in the uppermost tree tops now. It is light golden, and dreamy, as the mists soften its luster. Patches of pale blue emerge momentarily, far above me, and are then wiped away again by the flowing whites and grays of the dewy sky. I allow my being to be a house of worship now, I close my doors to the world, open the door to my heart, and open my windows to heaven. I am as the trees now reaching upward, a candle-stick and a flame of love for God. Thoughts are knocking at my doors, desperate to come in, but love will not allow them; and they drain away like refuse, melting in the heat of devotion, consumed by a greater and more urgent desire.

The sky to my left has turned a vivid pink, like spun cotton-candy, soft and billowing, swirling around and through the trees. The moment is beautiful, each moment is beautiful—full and rich. I see tree branches—illumined, glorious and golden in the gathering morning light—with green feathery foliage uplifting to the sky. Small black birds scatter—sharp dots against the white cloud-cover, and pigeons far in the distance arise in flocks of medium-gray, suddenly turning white as they shift in the sunlight. Every moment is an ecstasy of experience, pregnant with a superabundance too full to be comprehended in its entirety.

Imagine! Watch even a single blade of grass—so small and lowly—drawing in the vibrant energy of the sun and pulling nutrients up through its roots—converting these to life, and adding to the blade’s girth and stature. There is no shortage of intrigue in the moments of life all around us, and in us. Yes, even watching the grass grow is a joyful event beyond our comprehension, to which we can devote our entire attention.

~FS

The Real God, Hanging

When I gaze upon your cross, your body hanging there, I understand—how could it be another way? For, to this world of pain and sorrow, how could you come to us in any other way?  Pain speaks to pain, sorrow to sorrow, and we understand one another, in our suffering. Were this simply a world of mirth, and of parties only—well—your cross would be unfathomable. For, the healthy do not need your healing touch. But, our world is cancer-ridden, a cemetery in space, for the dead and almost-dead, and the dying. Only our illusions hide this tragic truth. Through tears I see you on your cross, and you make perfect sense to me there. What help would you be, if you came to us in aloof, indifferent victory? As victorious God, far above us in the heavens, distant from our lives here in the dirt? How could we then relate? I’m grateful that you came here, to relate! Now, your blood and sweat I do imbibe, and you speak to me so clearly; I see you and I hear you on your cross, as I am hanging from my own. It cannot be another way—not here, not now—therefore, I wouldn’t want it any other way—but only what is true, and only what is real.

~FS

Happy Trails To Us (part 3):

The afternoon heat intensified, with the rays of the sun pummeling our bodies and eroding our resolve, and sapping our energy, so that each additional step, taking us moment-by-moment deeper into that desert wilderness, also seemed to stultify our minds, rendering us all temporarily dim-witted. Heather worked hard from the front of the line to keep us all engaged with our surroundings, calling our attention to particular details of interest: the adaptive strategies of the desert milkweed, the wide and strange markings found on the wide variety of lizards indigenous to the desert here, and the amazing sense of smell which leads turkey vultures, like the ones up ahead, to dead animals. About a half hour later we passed by the carcass of a dead mammal—probably a coyote, though maybe a fox, Heather said—with several vultures gathered around, sharing the meal.

As the afternoon wore on, the sun began its descent, which brought relief from the focused intensity of its light, but the air remained infernal. We entered a labyrinthine landscape of narrow gorges, with trails leading helter-skelter in all directions. Heather stopped to examine her trail-map more closely. As Barbara looked on from several paces away—taking small comfort in the thin shade of a scrappy looking little desert tree, which to my eye appeared already dead—she commented to her new friend, Thadia, and to the Subaru kids how lucky we all are to have someone like Heather to lead the way. She’d hate to be out here all alone without someone like Heather to follow, she’d be sure to end up like that coyote we passed earlier. After a few moments Heather took a look around, seemingly perplexed, but recognizing that all eyes were upon her, she smiled confidently and raised her head defiantly, to set our minds at ease. Barbara and Thadia smiled at one another and watched Heather expectantly. I found it all unsettling however; the look of bewilderment in her eyes, coupled with the determined set of her jaw, together left me feeling apprehensive. Was it decisive confusion that I saw on her face; or was it confused certainty? Either way, it didn’t feel comforting. For the first time Heather looked to me like the type of leader that could confidently make a colossal blunder. Glancing at the others in our group, I caught the eye of one or two who seemed to express my same concern, but most everyone else didn’t seem perturbed one bit, and they were ready to follow wherever Heather might lead us.

After one or two more quick glances at her map, Heather resolutely pointed the way up one of the trails leading off to our right, and then strode off in that direction. “Come along! Compadres! We’re almost there, just an hour more and we’ll make camp for the night. There’s a beautiful little grove of Emory Oak trees that we can camp under, you’ll love it!”

“Sounds delightful!” exclaimed Thadia. “I’m all in!” added Barbara. And the rest of us fell in line, and we snaked our way up the trail, reinvigorated by hopes of a nice evening under the trees.

But two hours later, we still hadn’t arrived at the promised oak grove, and we were getting impatient. Our feet were hot and tired and our legs ached. What’s worse, several of us began complaining of upset stomachs and intestinal pain. Heather and Tom encouraged us to keep going—the oak grove was a little farther than they had remembered it—but we’d be there soon and then we could rest, have a nice meal, and get some sleep. But even after another half-hour of hiking—there were no oak trees in sight; and when Barbara’s daughter doubled over and threw up on her shoes, Heather decided it would be better to stop where we were for the night, and abandon the oak grove. We pitched our tents in a cluster, surrounded by several Saguaro Cactus and numerous little scrubby shrubs, which Tom identified as Foothill Palo Verde.

Heather spent a lot of time with Barbara’s daughter, Maggie, getting her first to lie down and put her feet up, and then to drink more water. But slowly—just sips—because she most likely was suffering from a bit of heat-stroke and probably dehydration. Barbara, very concerned, watched on gratefully from just behind Heather’s shoulder, as Heather tended to her sick daughter—placing a cool towel on her forehead and also behind her neck. After dinner, several more in our group complained of nausea, which alarmed Tom. He wondered aloud if we all had eaten something that had gone bad, but nobody could think what it might be, since we had only eaten trail-mix, power bars, and dried meat, none of which really seemed likely to have caused our symptoms. He concluded, as Heather had, that it must be slight dehydration and some heat-stroke; with the course of treatment being more water—taken slowly—and rest. We all tried to sleep that night, with varying degrees of success. I, for one, didn’t have a great night, but counted myself fortunate because I neither had to get up to puke, nor to relieve my bowels repeatedly, like some of the others did.

By morning, the mysterious malady had affected almost everyone, though some had begun to recover, while others looked to be getting worse. Conspicuously, a small contingent were unaffected—Steve, old-man Mitch, Trina and Randy all were as healthy as ever. Again, nobody else seemed interested in this fact, though it piqued my curiosity and led me to theorize upon the potential benefits of the much-maligned iodine tablet as an effective water treatment. And this caused me to question the preferred, modern and superior water-filter which Heather had advocated. But not wanting to cause any friction I kept my thoughts to myself. However, I did quietly ask Tom if I could take a look at the filter, just out of curiosity, wondering how the remarkable thing worked. He handed it to me cautiously, reminding me to be very careful with it, and then he returned to his horizontal position, moaning a little as he lay there. Upon close inspection, it did appear that the filter casing had been damaged, with the screw-on cover slightly pulled-apart on one side. With a little effort I was able to unscrew the top and take a look at the insides. “Tom.” I whispered. “I’m no expert about these things, but this doesn’t look right to me. Here, inside this filter—take a look.” I said, and reached out to hand the opened filter back to him. He wasn’t pleased that I had disturbed him, and was upset that I had taken the top of the filter off, but when he peered inside, he gave a low whistle and shook his head. “Not good. This thing is definitely busted. See that tear in that membrane, water is going straight through it without getting filtered. This thing is toast!” He said out loud, and then more quietly, as he covered it under his sleeping bag, and looked around to make sure nobody had heard him. He called Heather over and showed her the filter. After her initial alarm, and after the two of them realized the source of our collective illness, she knew what had to be done. We needed good water after all.

Heather walked over to talk privately with Steve and old-man Mitch. I saw her gesturing and then Steve reached into his bag and procured two large bottles while nodding to Heather. Next, she turned to face the group of tents and called out for everyone to gather around. Once we had dragged ourselves from our bags and were all within earshot she began: “Okay everyone, it seems we have some problems with our water. I’m not exactly sure what happened, but we need to refrain from using the filter. Now, don’t worry. It’s going to be just fine. It’s okay. Steve has iodine tablets and we’re going to treat everyone’s water using that. It’s going to be just fine. We’re going to get through this!”

“But wait,” Samantha spoke up. “You said iodine is dangerous and we shouldn’t use it.”

“Iodine is completely safe,” Heather reassured everyone. “No, you must have misunderstood me. It is safe when taken for short periods of time, and in limited quantities. There is nothing at all to fear about using iodine to disinfect our water.” After some confusion and perplexed looks on the part of many of us, we gathered up our water-bottles and let Steve drop the tablets in, one by one, as prescribed.

“Thank goodness Heather and Tom figured that out!” Commented Barbara. Thadia nodded her head in agreement.

“I guess we were a little confused about using iodine, but I’m glad she clarified that, and told us we can use it. That will really help out now.” Thadia added, with obvious relief spreading across her face.

(to be continued)

~FS

Happy Trails To Us (Part 2):

Our group regained a semblance of order several hundred yards further on; Heather retook the lead and Tom brought up the rear once again. We walked in single-file to avoid any accidents, as the trail became very narrow, with a precipitous drop on our left-hand side. From the general conversation it was clear that the snake episode had done little to foster a sense of unity among us, but had rather acted more like a wedge in the midst of our fledgling community. Several members whispered amongst themselves that they had some doubts about leader Tom’s authority; others were appalled by old-man Mitch’s heartless cruelty. Barbara’s teenage son however, for the first time all day, was animated as he recounted the viper’s death scene in all its gory detail to his reluctant sister, who covered both ears with her hands, and sang at the top of her lungs to drown out his oration.

By evening, as we set up camp and ate our dinner, it seemed that folks had come around to the recognition that we are all in this together—for the next two weeks anyway—so we should make the best of it, and try to get along. Expert Tom never brought up his mistake about Rattlesnake Ridge, so we let the incident go without further reflection. After a good meal followed up by smores, we retired to our tents under a moonless night, as the dysphonic cackle of coyotes rose in the distance.

The next morning Heather called us together to give us the upcoming itinerary, with an important caveat that we’d be leaving the river late in the day, and cutting across open territory for the next twenty-four hours or so; with little opportunity for fresh water; so, when we get down to the river—which we’d be doing soon, in a few hours—we all should be sure to fill our water bottles to the brim, and plan on conserving. By morning of the day after tomorrow, we’d be back to the river’s edge, with all the water we can drink. One final thing, the water in this area isn’t safe to drink without treatment—it is filled with bacteria—so everyone should use the water-filters that either she or Tom had brought along with them, when filling their water-bottles—unless they want a bad case of the runs; which she wouldn’t recommend…since there’s no laundry service out here, and she doubts anyone packed enough underwear with them. We all laughed.

The second day was hotter than the first. The cool air from the nighttime lingered briefly but soon burned off entirely, and by lunchtime we all were baking; and any exposed skin was beginning to turn as red as the surrounding rocks. Thankfully we had finally reached the river, and most of us took a dip to cool off. Heather and Tom pulled out their water-filters. Old-man Mitch, along with his newly formed cohort—Steve, another old-timer, and a couple in their fifties, Trina & Randy—sat together at the river’s edge watching the rest of us floating and splashing. They weren’t interested in getting wet, or disrobing, and were happy just watching for now. Beckett and Samantha, or Sam as she preferred to be called—the young, nervous couple from the back of the Subaru—were hovering not far from Heather in hopes of being first in line to use one of the water-filters. They looked a bit haggard from the heat, but the anxiety which showed in their eyes also enlivened them, giving them both the appearance of insomniacs.

As folks were drying off, a shriek and then an ensuing argument broke the relative quiet: Heather looked incredulously at Tom and asked him, “Why on earth would you just drop your pack there, on the other side of that rock, without looking first?! You dropped it right on the water-filter…you probably broke it!” To which Tom retorted, “Well, why the heck would you put the filter back there, hiding, where nobody can see it?!”

“To keep it safe, you moron!” She answered, rolling her eyes and throwing both arms up in the air, whipping her hands with a short flick and spreading her fingers for emphasis. She leaned over the rock and pushed the pack to the side, and pulled out the filter from underneath. Examining it closely, she shook her head quickly from side to side, as she tried to pull the handle up to release the plunger from the filter-body. She grimaced as she pulled harder on the handle, and the shaft came partly out before stopping again. She pushed and pulled several times, shaking it between attempts, before finally throwing it down, in disgust, against the rock—inadvertently, in her anger, making absolutely certain that it was broken. Tom, looked on coolly, with feigned nonchalance and drooping eyes, and asked her slowly, “Was that the best idea?” Beckett and Sam took several steps backward and looked at one another anxiously, and Beckett let out a nervous laugh. Heather closed her eyes and sighed deeply, letting her shoulders sag before answering, “No…no, that probably wasn’t.”

All eyes were on our guides and a hush had overtaken us, as we waited to see what would happen next. Tom stated the obvious, “Well, that filter is toast…but at least we still have mine.” He walked forward to his backpack and rummaged through it for a moment before pulling the other water-filter out. “Well folks!” He called out loudly, holding the filter up in the air and turning about in a circle. “We need to be very careful with this one, it’s all we’ve got!” Nobody laughed. But there were quite a few nervous glances between hikers, before Heather gave us an impromptu pep-talk:

“It’s okay, we’re going to be alright, better than alright…we’re gonna be great! These are the best filters on the market, and one can easily handle the demands of our entire group, and then some! It will only take a little longer with one, but we’ve got time, so let’s line up and get going! Sooner we get our bottles filled up the sooner we can get back on the trail!” No further mention was made about her unfortunate outburst, or Tom’s unfortunate carelessness. We all supposed it was just water under the bridge; if our leaders didn’t feel any further need to address it, then why should we?

As the members of our group were taking turns using the filter, old-man Mitch and his friends stayed seated were they were. Tom called out to them, saying they should bring their bottles over, to which Mitch answered that no, they were good, they didn’t need the filter, they were using Steve’s iodine tablets to disinfect their water.

“Woah! Wait a minute!” Heather exclaimed, and took a few steps towards the iodine contingent. “No! That’s not alright.” She emphasized the words as she looked around at the other members of our hiking community. “Folks, I want you all to know, iodine is not safe. That might have been something we used in the past, but you really should never resort to that means of disinfecting water anymore. Especially now that we have modern filtration which is far superior. At the very least, if you don’t have a filter, you should only use chlorine-dioxide tablets, they are safe, but never use iodine. It is extremely damaging to the thyroid.” She turned back towards Mitch & Steve, “I would really prefer it if you’d use the filter, I’m responsible for everyone here, and I just don’t want anyone to get hurt.” Steve looked as if he’d been caught with his hand in a cookie jar, but he quietly answered Heather, “I can understand that, I really do. But you know, I’ve been using iodine tablets to disinfect water since I was a kid, my dad always did it this way. And I’m fine, even after sixty years of it. Well, maybe I’m not fine, I’ll leave that up to others, but I feel fine!” Trina and Randy chuckled at this, and Trina added, “My grandfather used to take my brothers and I out on camping trips and he always used iodine too, and I turned out okay.”  

Heather looked at Tom, and he shrugged. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and negotiated, “Since you’ve already used the tabs in your bottles, go ahead and use it this time, but after this let’s all just use the filter, okay? It is much safer. Science has come a long way since you were kids you know. And I mean no disrespect by that. We just should follow the best practices, so that everyone will be okay out here. You don’t want us to have to carry you out of here, do you? That wouldn’t be fair to anyone.”

Mitch nodded approval, and the others followed. “We can play along. We’ll be model citizens from now on! Water-filters it is!” Heather smiled, and the rest of us breathed a sigh of relief, somehow feeling that we had dodged a potentially lethal bullet, aimed at the heart of our community.

(To Be Continued)

~FS

Happy Trails To Us

It was a late summer morning, the air was crisp—it was early in the day—but with a strong hint of warmth blowing in from the south. A faint cool breeze also rose from the gorge below us, as a fading counterpoint and last gasp of opposition to the overpowering heat we all expected would be our companion for the days ahead. Our small group had gathered at the trailhead and we chatted amongst ourselves as we waited for stragglers to arrive. We were novice hikers at best, about to enter a difficult and dangerous wilderness for a two-week excursion, hoping to get through the adventure alive, and also to make a few good memories along the way.

Everyone was cordial, none of us knew the others in the group very well, most meeting the others here at the trailhead for the first time. A nervous anticipation made several members of our entourage extra talkative; a young couple sitting inside the open hatch of their Subaru were speaking loudly and rapidly to the mother of a mother-son-daughter trio, telling them all about their recent trip whitewater rafting. The mother listened attentively while sipping her coffee, nodding affirmation and approval as they told their tale, while her teens stared vacantly at our surroundings—bored already.

Before embarking on our journey, the two leaders of our excursion called us all together, to gather around in a circle for formal introductions, as a first step towards building the all-important community that we would need in order to make the trip a success—for fun and for safety, and for survival. They introduced themselves—Heather, and Tom—and confirmed our hopes and expectations; that they both had many years of experience in guiding tours throughout the backcountry. They were both very amiable and exuded confidence, and set the proper tone of fun measured with wisdom. The group fed on their charisma and folks were pumped-up, and ready to rock!

Everyone gathered up their things: donning backpacks, adjusting straps, tightening down tents and sleeping bags which had been packed atop or below their bags—we checked our water-bottles and re-tied our shoelaces. One or two of us ran back quickly to our cars to get something they had forgotten, or to make sure they had locked their doors. Heather led the group down the trail, and Tom brought up the rear; we started off at a brisk pace. “The wilderness won’t wait for us forever.” he said, “It’s time to make our mark and conquer our fears!” We cheered at his brief but inspiring exhortation, as we marched along, and the cool dust filled our nostrils, and the sun rose higher over our heads, up into the blue and open sky.   

We stopped several hours later, mid-morning, for a little rest and to drink some water, before continuing on. As we sat scattered within a small area, some of us in little groups with backs leaning up against the cliff-face which we had been following for most of the morning, Heather gave us a foretaste of our itinerary for the day. We’d be continuing up the gorge for the rest of the morning, and then stopping for lunch at a beautiful overlook, which provided vast panoramic views of the surrounding mesas, the crawling river down below, and the dark mountains far-off in the distance. Tom interjected as some of us expressed surprise and concern at the name of the overlook—Rattlesnake Ridge. “Ha! That’s just an old name, nothing to worry about. There haven’t been snakes there for years,” he comforted us. He went on to explain how the climate in the area had been changing and there was just no longer enough water—or moisture even—on that ridge to sustain life; so, without water, there’s no prey, and without prey there’s no snakes. One in our group raised a small objection, noting that it had been an unusually wet summer so far, and wondered, could they have come back? No, he then assured us compassionately, it doesn’t work like that, these kinds of changes happen over long periods of time, and a few simple rains wouldn’t change anything. He chuckled, to set us all at ease, and said we’d be about as likely to see a snake up there as we would to see Bigfoot or the Abominable Snowman. And we all laughed.

The morning hike was beautiful, but getting hot. Between the hot reds of the surrounding rock, the deep blues of the sky overhead, and the pure whites of the passing clouds it felt as though we had been dropped in the midst of a great, undulating American flag. The river, far below us—sparkling—reflected the bright summer sunlight so that, those of us without sunglasses, had to turn our heads, or squint and blink to keep our eyes from shedding tears. Everything was light, everything was bright, and by the time the sun passed directly overhead, there were no shadows. Not long after that, we reached Rattlesnake Ridge.

With sighs of relief we pulled our heavy backpacks from our shoulders and dropped them onto the ground. Again, we all found a spot to sit, some of us on boulders, some simply on the dirt. Our guides were absolutely right, the views from this spot were breathtaking. Cameras and cell-phones emerged and photos abounded; one young lady getting a bit too close to the edge as she snapped the perfect selfie, but caught and pulled back onto solid ground by our guide, Heather, before anything terrible happened. We ate our lunch, enjoying the scenery, and it was about the same time, when Tom had announced we’d be moving along soon, when one of the older men in the group, Mitch, made a commotion from his spot on a low ledge just off from the main group.

He leapt into the air, cursing, and jumped down from the ledge. To his right and to his left several small creatures slithered off the ledge rapidly and quickly disappeared into the dark crags which abounded in the vicinity; and one large rattlesnake followed directly in his wake. It came right for him, and looked to be attacking. Before he could catch his balance completely, or could find his legs beneath him, the darned thing struck. It hit his left boot and bounced off; and looked to have gotten its nose smushed against the hard leather. Stunned for a brief moment, but long enough for Mitch to gather his wits, Mitch then struck back—as the snake tried to gather its own wits—and, raising his very same boot in the air, Mitch brought it down decisively upon the creature’s slithery head. That was the final act in their battle; the long muscular body writhing and twirling for several moments before going limp.

The onlookers had mixed feelings. Several gasped, one turned away unable to watch, and two smiled surreptitiously and winked at one another, while shaking their heads in disbelief. After a moment, a collective sigh let out, apparently nobody had been breathing throughout this altercation. And then the reactions came: Man! I can’t believe it came after you like that!…How dare you, how could you kill it?!…It was coming right at me, it was him or me!…It didn’t have any choice, poor thing, its just living by instinct but you had a choice, you should be ashamed!…Boy, those are some good boots you’ve got!…I think I’m going to be sick!…I can’t believe he crushed its head, that was disgusting, hee-hee!…What choice did he have?!…Well, I guess we’d better be looking out for Bigfoot now!

Then somebody offered the suggestion that maybe we should pack up and get out of there as fast as we can, because there are an awful lot of creepy holes everywhere, and maybe there are more snakes where these came from. Another person reminded everyone of the other snakes that they had all seen just moments ago, slithering off into the holes just over there; what if they come back? This caused a general commotion and a flurry of activity as folks hoisted their bags onto their backs, with some hikers starting off quickly down the trail without even strapping their bags in place.

(To Be Continued)

~FS

The Frog With a Frog in His Throat

And now, a brief break—much needed—a little-known tale about an ordinary tree-frog with an extraordinary moniker, and a highly unusual, and somewhat ironic, malady. His name is Theodore, well, when time permits: Theodore Ribbitz Kronprinz und Kaiser Burggraf von Waldschloss.

Teddy, as his lazy friends like to call him, moved unexpectedly to North America from his native Germany, packed into a wooden crate filled with strudels, stollen and marzipan just last year, arriving on our shores barely in time for the holidays. Upon disembarking from his cross-sea voyage, he hid amongst the marzipan critters and made it safely, as the young delivery driver who picked him up, delivered them all to a nearby bakery and pastry shop, which also sold a bit of candies and other confections on the side.

Attempting to converse with his marzipan companions proved fruitless, and Teddy pursed his lips in his characteristic way, as his eyes bulged slightly in disapproval; and he then hopped away and out of that store, searching for more stimulating fraternity—others more suitable and appropriate to his station in life. His involuntary journey thus far had not disturbed him greatly, he was a tolerant and imperturbable amphibian after all, and of high breeding, though not ignorant or unresponsive to the plight of the common frog. In general, frogs of all stations have this equanimity, as they are, in their own words, “alike on land and in water”, meaning, they can be comfortable in a variety of locations and situations, not to mention in widely diverse company.

So Teddy, or ‘Ribbs’ as he liked to be called—but only close family tended to call him that—wandered a bit through the streets of Baltimore, all the while noticing, what most people might call a small ‘lump’, caught in his throat, which seemed to be growing. He first noticed it while traveling in the crate, but hadn’t paid it much attention at the time. He gagged and choked, and then coughed, trying to dislodge it, but with no luck. A raven on a nearby telephone line, overhead, was watching Theodore throughout all of this, thinking he looked mighty tasty, though unsure what the darn frog’s problem was, and then she thought better of eating him, considering her own delicate digestion, nothing to be toyed with, and certainly not worth risking on this paltry, little green meal. Hardly a meal even, more of an appetizer really, but she flew down even so, out of curiosity, and landed next to the unaware and pardoned appetizer, still gagging and hacking away on the side of the street.

“What seems to be the problem, little man? Cat got your tongue!?” Upon which, she cackled with laughter, and flapped her wings up and down in approval of her clever witticism.

Theodore Ribbitz Kronprinz und Kaiser Burggraf von Waldschloss looked up at her, with bulging eyes, made even more bulging-er than usual from his coughing, and spoke thusly: “I pray, dear raptor, or what ‘ere you be.” He began, using his finest old and middle English, of which his grandfather, Baron Kronprinz und Kaiser Burgraf von Waldshloss, had taught him, being the only member in their family to have studied any foreign languages whatsoever, and having a predilection for classical studies. “No, it be not a cat that hav’est my tongue, silly goose, or what ‘ere fowl you be, but a…squeak-ichth-eek-gaachh.” His speech having suddenly been taken over, most embarrassingly, by that little glitch in his throat, and making him to sound a bit like a stepped-upon mouse, or a frog going through puberty.

Upon which the raven crowed with laughter, wings a-flapping wildly, and she retorted, “Ah, I see. It be a frog in thee throat!!” She mocked him.

Upon this comment, he turned bright red, but unfortunately for him, he really just turned a strange shade of brown, being the color a green frog actually turns, when he blushes. He opened his wide mouth to make reply, hoping something witty might come to him, but to his chagrin, he could think of nothing in time, and instead he just stood there silently, with gaping wide mouth and bulging eyes. The raven leaned forward expectantly, waiting for his answer, her beak parting slightly as mirth rose up from her bosom, her gleaming eyes gleefully sparkling in the sunlight, but before her good humor erupted again from her belly, at his expense, Teddy turned and hopped away in a flash, too stunned with embarrassment to withstand another moment of it—and certainly, were he a tadpole still, he would have retreated with tail between his legs.

There are many other things that can be said about Theodore’s journey, but for now, I will only tell the next important event, about how he found his way to ‘a people’ most like him in every way, among whom he settled and lived happily. Immediately after his embarrassing debacle, as he made his retreat away from that boisterous raven, he discovered a local branch of the Baltimore public library and so, being a fairly erudite and scholarly frog, he high-footed his way into the archives, where he discovered that a large community of Germanic tree frogs had emigrated many years earlier, and had settled in the low-country of southern Pennsylvania, in a wooded copse not far from Littlestown. With glee, he exclaimed joyfully at this discovery, from his perch behind the micro-fiche machine, which had been unplugged and tucked on a small table behind the periodicals from the 1950’s, all which were waiting there to be discarded, if the custodian could ever get around to actually doing his job.

The librarian heard what she thought was a mouse squeaking, but which was truly just our poor tiny Teddy, with his unfortunate ailment, and so she called maintenance, asking them to set traps again, for the umpteenth time, and why don’t they ever do what she asks them the first time?! As they prepared to send someone over to set the traps, Teddy made his way out the back door, and began his trip to Littlestown to find ‘his people’. In fact, he even made it most of the way there, before the custodian did finally make it over to the archive room to set the traps. First, he couldn’t find them, then he got hungry and had to have a snack, and after that he got tired, and so he took a nap. Well, by the time he woke up again, it was time to go home for the day. The next morning, when he got to the library, he forgot. And it wasn’t until sometime the middle of the following week, when the librarian heard the mouse again, and this time it really was a mouse and not ‘Ribbs’, when she called the custodian again, and asked why he never can do what she asks the first time, he got the message and finally set the traps.

By the time the librarian checked on the traps, and realized the custodian had forgotten to set them with any kind of food, or bait in them, the mice had long-since left the archive room and had resettled in the basement, where the custodian had left a garbage-bag filled with leftovers from the break-room refrigerator. He had honestly intended to take it out to the dumpster and throw it away, but as he was making his way to the back doors, he got the worst Charlie-horse in his leg and he had to return to the supply room where he went to get something to put on it. After that, it was about time to go home for the day.

Meanwhile, in a small wooded area, not far from the Maryland-Pennsylvania border, a small community of immigrant German tree-frogs just added a member to their numbers. And what a member indeed, one with aristocratic pedigree and noble heritage, and a fine young bachelor with prospects, we might add. Yes, of course, you know who: Theodore Ribbitz Kronprinz und Kaiser Burggraf von Waldschloss. And, you’ll be happy to know, well, the little glitch in his throat eventually took care of itself. No, the cat hadn’t gotten his tongue, and it certainly wasn’t a frog in his throat. It turns out that Teddy is allergic to marzipan, who knew!? He had eaten some on the trip over from Europe and was just suffering a little anaphylactic episode, but nothing too serious. He’s a frog after all, and as they all like to say about themselves, “we’re alike on land and in water”, which is to say, that they can be comfortable in all situations, and nothing much really bothers them, not for very long.

*  *  *

~FS