Jana Richman One Woman's Meat: Notes from Escalante

The Perfect Trail

Written by Jana Richman on . Posted in Antone Flat, Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument, Escalante, Utah, Kindness, Peace, Roundy Trail, Security, The Body, The Mind, The Place

Roundy Trailhead

North of Escalante, about six miles up the road that goes to Posey Lake on the Aquarius Plateau, off to the right, the Roundy Trail cuts across Pine Creek and winds a quarter-mile through sage and juniper before snaking directly up the mountainside. From the pullout just past the cattle guard, the high, steep ridge discloses no obvious route. Once it starts up the craggy, red- and white-faced rock dotted with vegetation, easy-to-miss rock cairns offer small guidance in navigating turns and twists on a kaleidoscopic trail of red, orange, and purple pieces of shale—slippery when wet or dry. The trail climbs steadily for two miles before depositing a hard-breathing hiker on the top at a place called Antone Flat. From there, one can stroll through juniper and ponderosa to the edge of the world and peer over into deep, endless canyons of slickrock.

Because it is short and close to town, one could hike it daily. And if one were of a Buddha nature, that would be the wise thing to do. Steep, slippery, and easy to lose, the trail requires strength, endurance, balance, and focus. Once you have all of those working, it sets up the perfect Buddhist paradox: at the same time it demands focus, it also requires letting go, getting out of the mind, trusting that the foot will find its place, trusting the animal instincts you were born with. It requires comfort with shifting ground and uncertainty. I believe the Roundy Trail to be a path of enlightenment.

The other day I decided to hike to Antone Flat when it seemed I had none of the requirements—strength, endurance, balance, focus, or trust—on hand. There are closer, easier trails when one is feeling like a semi-attached piece of rusted sheet metal banging repeatedly against the shed in the wind. But that’s where I found myself.

I tightened my bootlaces and skirted along the barbwire fence down a washed-out gully, splashed through the creek and stumbled across the desert floor through anthills larger than my kitchen table until an obvious rock cairn alerted me to cut in and start the climb.

As I settled into the ascent, I attempted to empty my mind. It does not go willingly. That’s not to say that it’s filled with important data. Very much the opposite. It’s like the kitchen garbage that is three days beyond when it should have gone out—filled with stinking waste and buzzing with fruit flies—full of lies I tell myself, imaginary conversations with real people, real conversations with imaginary people, useless essential information, fantasies, nightmares, scenarios worked out in all sorts of ways. Chatter. Endless noise without a gap big enough to stick a foot in. All of that is a good thing if the intent is to be spit out onto Antone Flat without seeing 360-degree views of earth and sky, without realizing you’re sweating like a human, and without feeling the punctures in your leg from the cactus you didn’t know you walked through.

Roundy Trail Surface

The trip down, though, is a different story. It forces the issue. I start out clumsily, still listening to the noise in my head until I trip and skid far enough down the trail to scare myself quiet. Then I drop into a zone, a crouch-step where I focus only on my next move and go quickly before my mind can catch up to my body. I get comfortable walking on floating pieces of shale. The slips are nothing; I recover quickly. Easy going. Relaxing. I maintain the zone for a good five minutes before I realize that it has been four minutes since I’ve seen the last rock cairn, calling for me to stop, lift my head, look out at the world, and retrace my steps until I’m back on the path.

If I choose to look closely at my motivations, which I don’t often choose to do, I would guess that I found myself on that path because it most closely resembles everyday reality—the ground shifts under my feet, rock cairns disappear, and another storm rolls in.

I’ve been reading Pema Chodron. She suggests that we cause our own suffering by relentlessly searching for solid ground that simply isn’t there, by incessantly clinging to disappearing markers as the next storm rolls in. Of course, she’s right. I’ve clung to one buoy after another looking for the final flotation device. Whether it be financial, emotional, or physical security—I want my lifetime warranty. Then I can stop holding my breath and go about my life in a relaxed and cheerful sort of way.

Security Marker

We are a society of guarantees, promises, contracts, assurances, pacts, treaties, and pledges. Till death do we part. Some of us would even like to be insured beyond death so others have taken it upon themselves to offer such a thing. Nevermind that the foolishness of this approach is flung back at us daily in the form of divorces, lawsuits, broken promises, bankruptcies, lapsed warranties, broken hearts, and suicides. We shall not be dissuaded in our march toward security.

Pema Chodron proposes that we might instead want to cultivate a level of comfort with impermanence and uncertainty since that seems to be what life offers us. “Lean into the sharp points” of life, she says. Instead of attempting to encase our hearts in something like a little pocket protector, we might do the opposite—unwrap our hearts, open them to pain and suffering, expose what she calls “the tender spot.” From that piercing of the heart, she claims, comes compassion and light, a relaxation into today’s reality instead of a grasping at tomorrow’s illusion.

Radical. Logical. Difficult to implement.

But I’m trying it out. I’ve started meditating twenty minutes a day—not as easy as it looks—but I worry (a non-Buddhist thing to do) that in the midst of all this loving kindness I will become too appeasing, that my writing will lose its edge. I write essays, and according to the essayist and editor of The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate, one of the roles of an essayist is contrariety. And I love that role—the “opportunity to bristle” as Lopate puts it.  When I voice my conciliatory concerns to Steve, he assures me that will not happen. I’m not sure whether that is a compliment or an insult, so I decide to let it go without judgment (a Buddhist thing to do).

As I slip and slide down Roundy Trail, trusting the flow of groundlessness, I make a conscience decision to also let go of my husband as security guard, as guarantor of my happiness, as permanent sentinel of my heart and well-being. I believe we can show each other more love, more kindness, and more compassion if we let loose the security strapping. Maybe we can live more presently, allow for more spontaneity and playfulness, joy and passion, if we are not busy demanding promises of and making promises to one another.

This will take some time and practice. Letting go of security—even if it’s only an illusion—creates a feeling of, well, insecurity. But I’m doing all right with it. I’ve already let Steve go as far as the post office without first promising to love me forever. Tomorrow, we’ll try the grocery store.

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Comments (17)

  • Wayne

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    “Lean into the sharp points of life”, I like that idea. Thank you for offering another thought provoking blog.

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    • Jana

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      Thanks, Wayne. I love that quote of hers also–lean into the sharp points of life.

      Reply

  • Sparky

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    “She (Pema Chondron) suggests that we cause our own suffering by relentlessly searching for solid ground that simply isn’t there, by incessantly clinging to disappearing markers as the next storm rolls in. Of course, she’s right. I’ve clung to one buoy after another looking for the final flotation device. Whether it be financial, emotional, or physical security—I want my lifetime warranty. Then I can stop holding my breath and go about my life in a relaxed and cheerful sort of way.” Hahaha, I love this. Don’t we all do it in some way? I’m certain of it. And there’s not much in life that is certain. ;o) Love you, girl!

    Reply

    • Jana

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      Thanks, Toni.

      Reply

  • Susannah

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    I can relate but the ground does as you say shift under our feet. What a treat to read you once more. I adore your descriptions and how that outside nature relates to our inside one. I must buy one of your books.

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    • Jana

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      Thanks for reading, Susannah.

      Reply

    • Sparky

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      Susannah- I recommend your buying at least two of Jana’s books (a third one is coming out in November 2012). But most of all, read them. ;o) ~Sparky

      Reply

  • dana

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    The Roundy Trail has put me on my ass several times and come to think of it so has life…another great piece, thanks for sharing…

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    • Jana

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      Ha! Dana, we should go hike it together. Take a little picnic, hang out on the rocks on Antone Flat. How much wine can you carry?

      Reply

  • David

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    Fantastic idea… Learn to walk comfortably on the scree of life..I like it

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    • Jana

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      Thanks, David. Lots of scree underfoot . . .

      Reply

  • Abe Van Luik

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    I vividly recall my last hike on skree. I slipped and slid down and my feet could not get traction so these two bushes came up, one on each side, and I stopped myself by grabbing onto them. Back and both shoulders hurt like crazy but the next morning I was on my way to Austria, so no time for medical help. It restricted movement for almost a year and hurt off and on, but after that it was OK. My point is that this is a scary thing you are describing, and not something I want to do again. I need security: a trail. I smirked at your making fun of yourself letting your husband have just a tiny little leash. My wife, in order for me to be employed, had no choice but to give my an 890 mile leash. She was out of her mind for a while, but I think it is becoming a growth experience for her, once she accepted that this non-ideal condition kept us from having to live on nothing. She could not move with me, custody of grandchild is state specific. So there we are, each unable to lean on the other for our daily dose of interpersonal face-to-face security. Maybe for 7 years total, five to go. But it will be fine.

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    • Jana

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      Thanks, Abe. All best to you and your wife.

      Reply

  • RJ Guiney

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    I admire the way you relate the workings of the mind to outdoor excursions. What a perfect solution – emptying the mind while ascending a trail like that! And your description of “feeling like a semi-attached piece of rusted sheet metal banging repeatedly against the shed in the wind” is non-specific, yet so descriptive! Reminds me of a poem I latched on to years ago, while going through the initial stages of a divorce. “I feel horrible. She doesn’t love me and I wander around the house like a sewing machine that’s just finished sewing a turd to a garbage can lid.” – I Feel Horrible. She Doesn’t, By Richard Brautigan.

    Also I loved how you fessed up to your insecurity. For me, I need twenty minutes of meditation twice a day. If I do this consistently, I’ll get moments of awareness a lot like you had while hiking down from Antone Flat. I’m just beginning to see that I don’t have any hope of securing a lifetime warranty. I gave up all hope of a better past a while ago, why not do the same for the future? Back in August, I had a conversation with Steve about “self-rescue.” It was the day before my birthday, and he said, “RJ, my birthday wish for you is to have a spiritual practice.”

    That wish is coming true. I don’t like my experience when I miss a session. When I’m feeling like rusted sheet metal or a wandering sewing machine, I might just be lucky enough to see behind those thoughts. Twenty minutes twice a day may be just the ticket, to get behind the “endless noise without a gap.” That practice, and occasional trips to the desert. I think I’ll check out the Roundy Trail ASAP. Or pursue groundlessness at some other beautiful outdoor spot in Utah. Mostly, I want to see that view from the top of the path of enlightenment. Thank you for your words and for helping me to “unwrap”.

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    • Jana

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      Thank you, RJ, for that beautiful response. I laughed when you said you gave up hope for a better past–do I hear Steve’s words in that? I remember the first time he said to me, “Jana, you’re just waiting around for a better past,” which, of course, was so true and so shocking to hear that it made me laugh out loud. And, yes, why not the same for the future? That’s a nice way to put it. Why not simply reside here in the present?

      The spiritual practice is something I’ve not taken seriously until recently–assuming it would just find me and required no effort on my part. And still it requires little effort, but it does require a great deal of practice.

      We would be happy to see you down here anytime you want to hike the Roundy Trail out to the edge of the world.

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  • Melanie

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    The Roundy Trail is one of my favorite trails…..and I always feel like it is there just for me…..but I guess not. I love the challenge of its terrain and the sheer joy of sitting on its edge and staring into the abyss. So many possibilities out there. And then to come down, it is back to reality as the cars leave dust trails on the road below. But what a relief that within an hour, one can sit on the edge of the world and breath deeply…..and unwind.

    Reply

    • Jana

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      And isn’t it interesting that so many of us see that as our private trail–and it is. I’ve never run into another up there.

      Reply

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