A single bead of sweat falls from my forehead. It drips down my cheek and over the corner of my lips. The salty taste only reminds me of how parched I am. My pace seems furious even though it is slowed by the steep incline of the path I am following. I glance back to see how far I have walked and I notice that I can no longer see anything man-made. I am surrounded by the natural. Completely immersed in jagged rocks, sweet-smelling pines, and the overwhelming feeling of freedom. When I began my journey, my thoughts were complex and spanned an extensive list of topics. Work, marriage, children, sex, food, politics, religion, science, nature, adventure, and random YouTube videos all swirled in my head like a tornado of distraction. But now, only a few short hours into my ascent into the wild Sierra, I find my thoughts narrowing. Priorities have changed so quickly.
I stop for a rest and take a seat on a fallen tree next to the trail. My Camelbak provides a few sweet sips of plastic flavored fluid. Just enough to hydrate me for the next hour or so. The silence is more noticeable than I had anticipated. I expected more wildlife here. I keep looking for animals, but aside from a few blackbirds and squirrels, it would seem as though there are none.
Maybe they smell me...maybe they could hear my boots pounding the chunky dirt path that weaves up the mountain.
The tedious thoughts of earlier are but a distant memory that continues to fade. My brain doesn’t want to, but my body stands up and continues to walk. Towards what, I don’t know for sure. I had spotted this trail on a shorter hike about a month ago. I noticed that it just seemed to go forever and I decided that I had to see where it leads. My mind is only focused on walking now. I cut the hike up into sections of about a half-mile each to make it more approachable mentally. It looks like the trail goes over a small rounded peak soon. That peak becomes my next waypoint.
I finally discover that I’m not alone. I stop to look at the tracks that cross my road to infinite. They belong to at least two coyotes and they disappear off the trail where the dirt leads to rock. I’m not too worried about coyotes, and in fact, it feels good to confirm some wildlife in the area. I leave the tracks behind me and forge on towards the coming vista that I have named “Mercury Peak” due to its scarred, barren, and rocky appearance. 100 meters to go. 50 meters to go. The ascent is getting really steep now. I slip a little as I make my way to the top.
As I reach “Mercury Peak”, I find a surprise. Just down the other side is a breathtaking mountain lake. It’s not big, but I'm overwhelmed by the beauty as I take in the visual. The sounds of birds and running water are deafening. It would make no sense to go any further.
“Well, looks like I’ve found camp for the night.”, I say to myself as I drop my gear and take a seat on a flat granite boulder. The sun is still pretty high in the sky. I note to myself that it is probably around 3 pm. Plenty of time to set up camp and build a fire. It’s still summer and the temperatures aren’t likely to dip below 50 degrees tonight. My sleeping bag next to the fire will be plenty to keep me warm.
I start by collecting fallen pine needles and leaves to create a bed and to help start the fire. As I reach under a tree to collect what I can, I notice a small black widow spider waiting patiently in her web. At home, it wouldn’t have survived another minute before meeting the bottom of my boot, but I decide not to disturb her.
The essentials are handled. Fire is built, the sleeping bag is on a nice layer of nature’s insulation, and my metal canteen is boiling some lake water to cook my nasty dehydrated trail dinner. I sit down on my flat boulder overlooking the lake to wait for the water to boil.
As I stare at the lake I notice the slight sensation that I am floating. I am not trying to zone out, but it just seems to be happening against my will. I must be tired. The water is ready, so I eat my meal as the pink and orange sky gives way into night. Sleep shouldn’t be hard to come by here.
“This place is more peaceful than Narnia.” I think to myself as I drift off to sleep.
My face seems to awaken before the rest of me. Awareness starts to come. I open my eyes and it is still dark. I can see the glow of the coming sun over the horizon. A small pile of smoldering embers sits where my campfire burned through the night. I decide to pack up and start my hike early.
The trail drops down Mercury Peak and follows the edge of the lake for a hundred yards or so before turning away and heading into a thick grove of pine trees. As I pass the lake I decide to sit quietly and look at it for a little while one last time before going on. The floating sensation returns. My breathing becomes deliberate and focused. All of the hair on the back of my neck suddenly stands at attention. The water is calm. At first glance, the surface looks like a rich translucent blue pool. As I stare I begin to notice the details. Small ripples where the fish rise to eat keep catching the coming sun in an explosion of light and color. The trunk of a bare and dead-looking pine tree shoots up from the ground on the shore on the other side. At the top of the tree, a bald eagle sits staring at the water with even more intensity than I could ever muster. As quickly as I noticed it, the raptor opens its massive wings and swoops over the lake. It glides effortlessly, gracefully, and directly towards me. Just when I start to think I’m in danger it dives down and snatches a trout and returns to his tree.
It takes me a minute to snap out of my trance before starting my day's hike further into the mountains. I keep wondering if that eagle would have left his nest to catch that fish had I not been watching. I’m certain he would have eventually, but would it have been different if I wasn’t there to observe? I realize now that as you peel back one layer of the universe it only provides you with a different view of the same totality. The never-ending connection between all things. The past and the future are all sewn to right now from that perspective. The eagle is the universe. The fish and the lake are the universe. The tree and my flattened boulder and last night’s sunset are the universe. The chaotic mess of thoughts that crowded my mind as I started my journey yesterday have now been replaced with only one...repeated over and over with the rhythmic cadence of a disciplined drummer...”I am the universe.”