The following is an excerpt, a single essay, from my new book of creative nonfiction The Long, Steep Path: Everyday Inspiration From the Author of Pay It Forward. Photos related to this essay can be found at: http://www.catherineryanhyde.com/the-long-steep-path/valencia-peak/
I’ve lived in the same small town for more than a quarter of a century, most of that time in the same house. I had two dogs to walk for most of those years, mine and my mother’s (or, if she took a walk, she took them both).
A surprising number of those days, I walked the same path through the same woods.
In time, I ceased to see the woods. In fact, I often ceased to notice that I was outdoors at all. I’d go off in my head, which would begin to spin around and around and around. After all, what was there to see? I had already seen it all.
The dogs, I couldn’t help noticing, took a different tack. I could tell. They never got bored. They never walked along with their gaze far away, as if they were somewhere else in their heads. They always kept their nose to the wind and followed every sight, sound and scent.
I began to focus on the difference between the way I dealt with the repetition and the way they approached it. Not surprisingly, it came down to the most basic difference possible between personhood and doghood.
I came to feel that I knew more or less what the dogs would tell me, if they could talk. If we could engage each other in that sort of conversation.
“Gosh,” I might say. “It’s just this same old path through this same old woods. Don’t you get bored?”
“Same?” they might reply. “Same? How can you say it’s the same? Don’t you smell that tinge of smoke in the air? Someone’s burning something a few miles from here. Don’t you hear that faint clopping of hooves and crunch of brush? A deer heard us, and is running away. And right here…yes, here…a fox came across the trail this morning. And look, I just flushed a few quail out of the brush. That didn’t happen yesterday!”
It’s taken a long time, but I’ve learned to be just a little bit more like a dog. Don’t knock it until you’ve taken it for a test drive.
Here’s where Valencia Peak comes in.
When I’m training for a big hike, I often return over and over to Valencia Peak in Montana de Oro State Park. There’s a simple reason why. In the summer, it’s cool. It’s one of the rare places near my home where a peak suddenly rises up more than 1300 feet above sea level, but without taking the hiker more than two miles from the coastline, and without any topography to block the ocean breeze. So on a day that might see a 90-dregree high temperature at my second-favorite peak, Cerro Alto, it might only be in the low 70s on top of Valencia.
As a result, I’ve done that same hike many, many times. More times that I can count.
At first, I’m sorry to report, I did not repeat this hike the way my dog might. I just pitched forward and pounded the trail to the top. I didn’t look around much, because whatever was there to see I had already seen.
Or so I thought.
I did learn something interesting from that repetition, though. I learned that my abilities are not the same every day. Before the lesson in question, if I found myself straining on a grade, I assumed the trail was—in some indefinable way—tougher than the distance and elevation would indicate. But after repeated trips up Valencia Peak, I had to concede that the trail was not changing. The only changeable factor was me.
Years ago I had a horse. His name was Cody, and he was only two when I bought him. Still too young to ride. So I “gentled” him (I did not break him—at the end of the training he was fully intact) myself. I had three minor mishaps in the course of the training. Three spills that hurt. And I summed them up and reported them to the horse trainer who was helping us both. I wanted her to hear what I’d learned.
In all three cases, I said, I had made very good progress the previous day. A breakthrough of some sort. And it caused me to suddenly overschedule the future. Well, I thought, if we can do X today, surely we can do XY tomorrow. The following day I would hit the rail head-first, because I’d failed to notice that the horse was simply not in the same place, not in as good a mood, or not as receptive to my lessons. Or, in the case of this stubborn boy, maybe all of the above.
Turned out she thought that was a good observation.
In my early repetition of Valencia Peak, I learned that the same applies to me as well.
I began rating myself (a tool, not a judgment) on my energy and abilities for that day—on a scale of 1 to 10. One day I was a 9.5. Next time out a 4. No specific trackable explanation, except that I’m flesh and blood, like a horse or a dog. I’m not a machine. I’m more complex.
It’s a valuable thing to know. It releases me from some unrealistic expectations I might have of myself.
Then came a time when I didn’t hike Valencia Peak for a couple of years.
When I got back to doing it regularly, I’m pleased to say, I found myself hiking that little mountain more the way a dog might.
“The same? How can you say it’s the same? Today I saw a coyote stop and stare at me, put his head down, then race off. Today I got four steps from one of the wild brown bunnies before it hopped to cover. Today I got a glimpse of a bobcat, walking away into the brush.”
The more I started watching, the more I saw things I literally did not know existed in the world.
Literally. Did not know existed.
Ever seen a fogbow? It’s like a rainbow, but less colorful. And it’s not seen on a rainy day. It’s a bright arc of whitish light touching the mountain at the edge of the fog. I even got a photo. I posted the photo on my social networking sites, with the message, “Is there such a thing as a fogbow? And, if not, what the heck is this?” No one seemed familiar.
Then, on the very next trip up Valencia, I saw—and photographed—another fogbow.
Here I have to stop and ask questions I can’t even answer myself. Would I have seen fogbows all along if I had known they existed? Was it simply a matter of keeping an eye out for them? Remembering to look?
I may never know.
I do know this. When I posted the second fogbow photo, I took a moment to Google the word. Frankly, I thought I was being tongue-in-cheek by making it up, but I not only got hits for the word fogbow, I learned there’s a Wikipedia page devoted to fogbows.
I posted my new photo on Facebook, along with the link to the Wikipedia page. My friend Shannon, whom I had known years before when we were Hearst Castle tour guides together, told me she thought it was called a “Spectre of the Brocken.”
Okay. More new things to learn.
I Googled “Spectre of the Brocken.” Turns out it’s that rare phenomenon—apparently involving fog, light, and elevation—that surrounds a shadow with a small, tight rainbow. Apparently it was first documented on Brocken Peak in Germany.
I had actually seen this phenomenon, once. Years before, when I was flying in a commercial airplane, I looked down and watched the shadow of our plane on the clouds far below, surrounded by this small rainbow. I had no idea what it was, or what to call it. But I had seen the Brocken Spectre.
I still did not think, however, that my fogbows were Brocken Spectres. If for no other reason than their tendency to be bigger and more colorless.
I really am heading somewhere with all of this. Thank you for your patience.
A couple of weeks later, I trudged up Valencia Peak again in the fog. And yes, believe it or not, witnessed my third fogbow. Three hikes out of three. Then I turned around at the apex of a switchback, just as the sun crested the hill behind me, and saw my own shadow on the fog below. Surrounded by a small, tight rainbow.
At first I almost couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Was that really me in the center? I raised my arms, waved them around. The shadow in the center waved back at me. I was witnessing the Spectre of the Brocken, not two weeks after learning such a thing existed.
Better yet, I had my camera.
So…the same? How can you say it’s the same? Today I saw my shadow on the fog surrounded by the Brocken Spectre.
I can’t really answer the questions of coincidence and timing. But I may see less coincidence in the story than some. I think the bottom line here is that the more we see, the more we see. Part of it may simply involve looking up. Part of it may have to do with seeing what we’re open to see. I don’t know.
I do know that my first spiritual teacher once taught me the classic Zen precept, “You can never step twice into the same stream.”
My dogs understood the concept all along. I eventually caught up.
Causes Catherine Hyde Supports
The Pay It Forward Foundation, Marriage Equality (See Human Rights Campaign), the 350 movement to help ease global climate change, LandWatch San Luis Obispo...