Ascending the trail, the sound of gravelly earth crunching beneath my soles is like the familiar voice of a good friend in my ear. Welcome. Trusted. True. It reminds me, somehow, of my deeper, uncivilized nature when I’ve once again forgotten.
Yes, this, THIS is who I am… climbing a dry track along a mountainside, coming home to myself.
In the small Osprey day pack strapped to my back, along with a lightweight down jacket, extra layers of clothing, and a water bottle, I’ve stashed a ‘medicine bundle’ containing pungent white sage, organic tobacco, and some stoneground cornmeal: humble offerings to the land and its spirits whenever I go walking in a wild place. As surely as I would never go to dinner at someone’s house without bringing some sort of gift, food or drink to share, no less would I venture somewhere non-domesticated without a tangible token for our Earth Mother and the unseen ones—even if it is only a prayer or a song I carry.
Everything is alive, and we humans are the only ones not paying attention.
I needed to get out of town, away from our house in a tidy neighborhood at the foot of these arid mountains, to be apart from people, cars and manmade noise; walking in a semi-wild place amid trees or boulders, steeping myself in the sort of soul nourishment that always restores me. To amble along a solitary trail or path with no real intention of arriving anywhere but simply to wander, to move my bodysoul and fill my lungs with clean air, and reconnect once more with the most authentic part of my being.
The day shimmers bright and warm, inviting as a lover’s smile, while the faint breeze gathers perfumes of resinous sagebrush and chaparral—the drought-resistant shrubland plant communities typical of much of California, nurtured by the Mediterranean-style climate with mild winters and hot, dry summers.
I’m less than 30 minutes from home, up the winding “Palms to Pines” Highway 74, but I feel a world away. How brilliant. At 4000 foot elevation, high above the desert valley floor, the temperature is 60° F (16°C), and a couple of times I have to remind myself that it is late January—and the rest of America is currently crippled with winter storms and record breaking cold. Meanwhile, treading casually upwards, I am sufficiently warm in my hiking pants and flannel shirt, savouring the sunshine upon my body.
While I love to walk, my motivation and underlying need for the day is less about exercise than just to sit in a wild, wordless place and let everything non-essential fall away. Thus, at a certain point of following the trail, not feeling called to trek the entire three-and-a-half miles to the springs, I step from the path and settle upon the sandy soil. My palms upon the ground detect a cool dampness just below the surface, lingering remnants of the recent snow, another subtle reminder that we are only thirty days out of December, unlikely as it seems. Winter is generally a mild affair here in Southern California but, as with mountains everywhere, weather can change rapidly amid the peaks.
Seated crosslegged on a small rise, a living green curtain of manzanita behind me while looking out across the chaparral and pine-clad valley, I wish suddenly that I had brought my small woven blanket to rest upon. Simultaneous to wishing this, I ‘see’ a vision of myself on a Mexican-type serape or native blanket-rug, my deer antler-topped walking stick resting beside me, like some silver-haired Native American elder sitting quietly, face upturned to the heavens. Listening. Communing with the spirits of earth, plants, animals and air.
Is it the land itself that has summoned this vision forth, somehow recognizing the deeper truth of who I am and what I bring…?
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I make my offering; scattering cornmeal on the earth along with a bit of crumbled tobacco, pouring some water from my bottle onto the nearest shrub, while introducing myself and asking permission to sit for a while, to be welcomed by the ancestors, nature spirits and santa tierras. Normally I would light a couple of dried sage leaves, blowing upon them and fanning the pungent blue-grey smoke as another offering and prayer of gratitude, but somehow the little plastic lighter has vanished from my pack.
Perhaps thirty minutes have passed when I sense someone approaching along the trail, movement at the periphery of my sight. A young woman with long, ebony hair comes into view climbing the hill, headphones clamped on her ears. I nod to her as she passes but we do not speak or say hello. The walker gives a little smile, like it’s the most normal thing in the world that a man should be sitting here crosslegged as if meditating, wearing a battered, wide-brimmed walking hat, and then she continues on her way up the path and disappears from view.
From my perch, contentedly I gaze across the valley at an almost twin of Taos Mountain, musing at the irony of the resemblance, as if I am home, or nearly, in my most favourite ‘soul place’. Like that high plateau of northern New Mexico, “the Dancing Ground of the Sun,” there is even sagebrush around me, but here the fragrant shrub lives in close relationship with sumac, chamise, and curly, red-skinned manzanita, kept company by the occasional spiky yucca, and thus the air smells less “sage-y” than my beloved Land of Enchantment. Still, it’s wonderful.
I’ve worn boots rather than hiking sandals and my feet feel strangely confined, so I unlace the footgear and wriggle my soles free, peeling off the grey REI socks. Toes liberated, once again feeling earth as I nearly always prefer, briefly I flash upon a three-part post of the Soul Artist Journal I wrote in autumn 2015, “Leaving My Shoes Along the Trail.” For a few, sensory moments I am again barefoot in that dear, redwood canyon above the blue Pacific—a place that has since burned in the massive Soberanes Fire of 2016—and sadness beats its cadence on the deerskin drum in my chest. A nomad, I always seem to be moving on from places, never growing roots.
Possibly I should call myself Tree rather than River (my middle name), and then I might stay put.
Yet despite these heartbeats of sacred longing, mostly what I feel in the moment is joy—akin to watching the emerald hummingbirds hover in a blur of motion at tender blossoms. Yes, sweet joy and delight that I am here on this patch of wild earth overlooking a mountain valley, coming home to myself. And notwithstanding the occasional impatience to be further ahead of where I actually am, I do trust in the divine precision of timing, that things are always exactly as they need to be. Myself, included.
Opening my rucksack, I rummage amid various contents—jacket, longjohns, a favorite scarf purchased when I lived in Spain, bag of raw cashews, organic Pink Lady apple, Perelandra essences, bandana and sunblock—fishing for a little black notebook and fountain pen from Paris, ever my trusty companions.
Writing tools in hand, I gaze upward, observing the few wisps of cloud across the sky like long white feathers, errant thoughts drifting through the expanse of my mind, while around me the wordless silence is disturbed only by the streaming of a jetliner high overhead. Manmade noise seems to be almost everywhere on earth, I sigh.
As if someone has switched on a television screen inside my head, I unexpectedly ‘see’ flashes of Sedona, Arizona, a place and landscape that keeps calling to me for unknown reasons. And in another brief wave of emotion, I feel the ongoing yearning—perhaps it’s grief, or simply hiraeth—to reside in a place that truly nourishes and supports my wild soul, a home where I belong to the soulscape as surely as the non-human beings that live there and share space. Oak. Peregrine. Beetle. Dandelion. Javelina. River…
I belong to wildness and nature.
Humbly I acknowledge that, once again, it has been too long since I spent a day upon the earth away from house and town, finding haven in an untouched place where nature works on me on all levels, entraining with healing, timeless rhythms. For whenever I step onto a path like this one, I come home, no matter where the trail leads—threading amid manzanita and pines, or sagebrush and juniper—kept company by the wind’s whispering voices, earthly denizens, and unseen spirits.
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For roughly an hour I sit. It is strangely silent here, no birds calling in the air. Where are you Raven? Hawk and Scrub Jay, whither have thou gone? When the repeated jets trailing through the atmosphere pass onward, they leave only a hush among these rocks and trees.
My body feels grounded and my senses clear; pleasantly I am not “shift-y”, as I often call the shamanic state—an expanded, multidimensional mode of awareness in which I live almost constantly these days as a clairvoyant, clairaudient, and clairsentient. Certainly such intuitive gifts bring their blessings, particularly to a healer, but they also take their toll, especially with living in the modern world. The expansion often feels tiring, as if my nervous system is working hard to accommodate and integrate, all the while steadily pushing me further into a lighter-than-air, non-consensus reality.
Curiously, it is partly that “shift-y” expanded mode of awareness that limits my time in nature. Residing in a city, I must drive to reach a trail and destination like this one, and often that proves difficult; not simply for schedule or timing (which mostly I can rearrange), but for the challenge of having one’s consciousness and perception in multiple dimensions while operating a motor vehicle (not generally a good idea).
Today, most gratefully, I am here on the warm, winter mountain. Coming home to myself amid the healing wordlessness, drinking the sweet, soft sounds and scents of nature into my bones and breath. Enacting a ritual, of sorts.
What are the rituals we hold dear, those ones that maintain our vessel upright amid shifting and sometimes turbulent currents of life, or that anchor us into deep, dreaming waters of the soul? How is that we tend and cultivate the ordinary sacred in our daily hours—living a mystical life while simultaneously navigating the mundane?
As a healer, it is clear to me that the essential, daily business of our existence is to loosen our attachments, expand rather than restrict, and to practice self-love—which, I say, translates into making choices that don’t betray oneself but nourish, instead.
In these past days and weeks, I have given a great deal to others through my healing practice, integration coaching, and shamanic ceremonies: repeated energetic clearings, an exorcism, deep work to heal a person’s sickness and family lineage of conflict interwoven with ancestral lands. My goodness, what a lot of powerful ‘medicine’ work there has been—mostly, I think, because Earth needs it, and healers everywhere are being called to step forward and take on as much as we can to assist the Great Turning. In giving so much out, it is imperative to allow an equal amount of nourishing energy to flow in, lest I become imbalanced, depleted or ill, as I did a few years ago.
How I long to simply step out my door and wander barefoot amid some tall, noble trees; cloaked and hooded in my Peruvian poncho woven of soft alpaca wool, absorbing the healing vibration and energy of the earth, recharging myself on the very land where I dwell. For better or worse, lacking wildness surrounding me or immediately nearby, I depend upon all the other healing rituals of hearth and home that I routinely employ—healthy food, adequate rest, silence and meditation, tending the plants, cooking a lovely meal for us to savour by candlelight each night, no WiFi, daily Qigong, etc.—to build and maintain kupuri (light or ‘life force’).
Grow where you are planted, I remind myself. Make the choices that don’t betray but nourish… like going up to the mountain to sit, listen and pray.
I remember once reading that shamans need wild places because they are ‘power places’, where they recharge to do their deepest work. How loudly that rings true.
For those of us who walk with a foot in two worlds, who don’t fit in, how keenly we feel the solace of non-domesticated locales, where wildness holds us supportively in the fullness of who we are with the lightning and songs we carry. Yes, then, to power places, soul places, and soulscapes. In Celtic lore and druidry, it is said that Heaven and Earth are only three feet apart, but in the ‘thin places’ that distance is even shorter—special, magical places where the veil between realms is easily parted and the power of the spirit world can be clearly felt.
This trail doesn’t feel particularly like a power place to me, yet being free of gridlines and the motorized drone, in a spot with no electrical lines, cell phone towers or WiFi, here my body’s field has swiftly entrained to Earth’s undisturbed rhythms. I feel it, the subtle sense of inner harmony and flow that signals health and wellbeing. Can I confess a slight thrill that the phone in my pack has no reception and that I am disconnected from the technological web, and further, that I actually derive a comfort in that…? Whereas most people might feel nervous and gripped by their “what if’s,” I find myself relaxing into some cellular memory of wholeness, knowing that life has always been this way. Rooted. Present only where we are in the moment. Embraced by Pachamama.
In my book, The Bones and Breath: A Man’s Guide to Eros, the Sacred Masculine, and the Wild Soul (White Cloud Press, 2014), among the seven Soul Skills I offer as tools for a more embodied, meaningful and nourishing life, one of those is “Disconnect to Reconnect”:
Soul is timeless and elemental, fused seamlessly with bodymind and inseparable from spirit. As with every living thing in nature, its imperative is to grow, to connect, to embody its blueprint. Earthy, grounded, tactile and terrestrial, soul is fed by the timeless, not the technological, and it moves with rhythms that we are quickly forgetting and losing.
To nourish the soul, slow down and disconnect from the wired world—even for just a small portion of the day. Turn off your phone (or leave it behind). If only for a short respite, pull out from the continuous stream of email and texts. Forego the Internet and television. Eschew the technological distractions and conveniences and come back to the pulsing, breathing bodysoul. Unplug.
Breathe. Be here now.
Now, go outdoors.”
If only I could be rooted like manzanita or the tall ponderosas, I muse, but at least along this mountain path, once more I’ve found the place where the planet breathes inside of me.
Inhaling, exhaling, a moment of stillness between each.
Here, where I belong to no one but Gaia—like Eagle, or Fox, or Snake—I am fed by the ageless. Once again I hear Earth telling stories, the sort that must be listened to with a peaceful mind and open heart, and where, for those who have eyes to see, one remembers that everything is about connections.
“The job of the poet is to witness,” a friend recently said to me.
Breathing in, breathing out, seated beneath a turquoise sky, may I witness and sense the interconnection of all that enfolds me.
A deep stillness hums in my bones and my core, even as I tremble with life. Simultaneously, I perceive the landscape with crystalline clarity—even into multiple dimensions, as if in a ‘thin place’—yet free from flashes of prescience. Visions always come, eventually, like clouds or rain or laughter; they are part of life as a clairvoyant and clairsentient. Yet in this sweet moment, I’m feeling almost ‘normal’ … and I can’t help but laugh aloud, breaking the stillness.
What the Hell is normal?
I think maybe it’s like a small town we passed through once on the way to somewhere, a “blink and you’ll miss it” type of place, that I never returned to again.
Don’t care to go back, really.
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The sun has crossed the sky as our earth spins. Returning down the path, I toy with the idea that perhaps visiting this mountain could be a weekly ritual—weather, schedule, and shamanic states permitting—like the old, wooden bench just south of Carmel By The Sea, where I routinely went to sit and watch the sapphire waves and sea otters.
Disconnect to reconnect.
Listen. Renew. Heal. Dream.
May each of us find ways to come home to ourselves, in the ‘thin places’ and everyday ones, staggering with awe and gratitude for the mysterious grace of life, the uncountable blessings.
In the shaman’s world, we live in a boundless sea of energy; each thing connected to and affecting the subtle currents and awareness of whatever it comes in contact with, a mutually sensing and reciprocal exchange. I cannot count the words I’ve penned about this, knowing that everything is alive and interconnected.
Similarly, again and again I tell you, friend, that despite any seeming troubles or longing, mine is the path of gratitude—for everything, from the highest levels of creation down to the microbes. Even the difficulties and challenges, for so often they become my greatest teachers, helping me go beyond what I thought was possible for myself or others.
And I know that my true role, in all the work that I do—healing, coaching, writing, teaching, ceremonies, being in relationship with human and ‘other’—is to continue singing a love song from the heart, offering sweet medicine to the soul of the world.
Sing, brave warrior. Sing.
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