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.
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.
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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