This 2002 event established a model format for larger groups to go into wilderness and experience the spiritual dimension of wild lands. The comments below are extracted from participant journals and reflect the kinds of experiences which are encountered on an event to intentionally find the spiritual lessons and teachings in wilderness.
A 2003 event will take place from July 10 through July 19. Inquire for details.
Opening the Book of Nature
Into the Range of Light
An Exploration of Spiritual Values in Wilderness
A composite journal
assembled from participant comments
edited by Fred Krueger
In July, 2002 eleven individuals assembled in Yosemite National Park for a unique wilderness exploration. We would identify ways to cultivate spiritual lessons in wilderness. A larger goal was to establish a method through which we could bring thousands of people into experience of the spiritual values of wilderness. This would open new rationales for preserving and protecting wild lands. The following narration depicts some of the insights and stories from our experience.
Balmy skies greet participants as they arrive at the Tuolumne Meadows Campground from airports in Reno and Oakland plus several from the San Francisco Bay Area. We jam into two large campsites and scatter tents around the periphery. For three days we will prepare for our exploration before we move into remote wilderness areas south of Yosemite National Park.
On Wednesday Alison leads a warm up hike along the Tuolumne river. After a pause to taste a natural soda spring, the clouds darken and down comes hail and rain! One of the most exciting parts of the day, relates Alison, was scurrying back to camp with hail bouncing all around.
Thursday morning dark clouds still hang low. The weather forecast calls for rain all day. Deep thunder rumbles are a prelude for a drenching downpour. We cancel a cross country hike and switch to a tour of the dry desert outside the park. After visiting Mono Lake and its tufa formations we turn to the Inyo Craters for a climb up an ancient cinder cone. Through sage brush and scratching branches, we push up the sandy slopes of an extinct volcano. From the rim of the crumbling caldera, we find a spectacular view of the sun beaming golden rays through the clouds onto the eastern Sierras. As the beauty of nature touches us, low land cares fade away.
Our last day of preparation takes us to higher altitude to accelerate acclimatization. Most of us are "flatlanders" who are not adjusted to this 10,000 foot altitude. Today provides a cardio-vascular "stretch" to avoid altitude sickness.
On the trail to Mono Pass
Clouds still cover the sky when we break camp and shuttle to the Mono Pass trail head. Our journey into wilderness starts here. After an obligatory group picture, we begin our trip with prayer for inspiration and guidance, for strength and protection from accidents, and especially for insight to shape a way to bring many others into appreciation of wilderness.
There are eleven of us as we hike out of Yosemite: Robin Gottfried is a professor of economics at the University of the South in Tennessee. Linda Arneson heads a Minnesota merchandising company. Fr. Jacek Orzechowski, OFM, is a newly ordained Franciscan priest from Poland who serves a parish in Durham, North Carolina. Larry McCowan is a forester from Ohio who administers World Stewardship Institutes office in Santa Rosa. Kristi Oshiro is a graduate student from Berkeley studying religion and environmental ethics. Michael Bille is a psycho-therapist in Santa Rosa. Marcus Lee is a computer technician and student of early Christian writings. Beth Marshall is a psychological nurse from Charleston, West Virginia; like Marcus, this will be her first backpacking trip. Bob Marshall is a veterinary doctor, avid fisherman and outdoorsman. Alison Manning is a graphic designer and trip photographer; she will produce a graphic documentary on our exploration. Fred Krueger, from Santa Rosa, is the trail guide.
As we start out, a spirit of enthusiasm fills the group. We have discussed how we actually have three trips in one: We have (1) a backpack journey into what John Muir declared "the single most beautiful area in the world"; (2) our personal journey into the spiritual lessons of wilderness; and (3) the more challenging journey of building a model which others can replicate to encounter spiritual experiences in wilderness. Through our experiences we will shape this exploration so that it not only serves each participant, but it also serves an expanded national appreciation of wilderness.
The trail leads through lodge pole pines above the Dana fork of the Tuolumne river. Brilliant wild flowers speckle the forest floor. Even though the going is easy, the weight of our packs and the breath-grabbing impact of hiking at over 10,000 feet leaves many of us stopping regularly to catch our breath.
Weve been on the trail about two hours when Michael, huffing and puffing up an incline, tells us that there is a special "ESP" in wilderness. "You cant get this in the city," he says. "You have to push yourself and keep pushing yourself." His term represents the "Endurance, Stamina and Perseverance" which the mountains cultivate.
We haul up another ridge and view the rounded saddle which is Mono Pass. A sloping green marshy valley opens ahead. A hundred water rivulets trickle off of the slopes, creating a maze of small waterways. Clusters of stunted pine dapple the bowl-shaped valley. Snowfields top the peaks. This upland valley continues down and becomes what 19th century miners called Bloody Canyon. The sharp talus cut the mules hooves so that they left a bloody track on the trail. Even earlier this was the primary trading route for the Paiute people of Nevada as they traveled to the Miwok of Yosemite Valley.
Caption: Camp tonight is near an old log cabin surrounded by abandoned mine tailings.
As we set up camp, a beautiful sunset bounces a pinkish gold light off the mountains and clouds. The sunset tints the whole valley with golden light, and several hikers take pictures to capture the gloaming.
After dinner we circle around to reflect on the day. We discuss trail etiquette and the need for sensitivity in keeping the group together. To expedite spiritual experiences, we institute a time of morning quiet followed by group prayers at 8:00 AM. The meeting builds a feeling of partnership and a spirit of community percolates into the group. We are bonding in ways that stretch beyond what orientation could provide.
Over Parker Pass to the foot of Koip Glacier
Fr. Jacek opens morning prayers by introducing a lilting Franciscan refrain. Linda brings a personal issue to the group and asks for healing prayer. Her forthrightness and vulnerability help bind the group together.
Caption: Alison and Kristi lead us in a stretching session on a small meadow.
The exercises limber us and this time of "stretcher-cising" becomes a morning ritual.
Our spiritual focus today is the practice of beauty. As we hike we will seek external beauty, know that beauty is an aspect of Divinity and so also within us, and then strive to bring that beauty into our thoughts, words, deeds and relationships.
We climb out of the valley, cross our first snow field, and continue over 11,100' Parker Pass. After fording several streams rushing with snow melt we continue to the foot of Koip glacier. The glacier has shrunk during the past decade, a sign that climate change is at work here and in the declining size of other high mountain glaciers.
Caption: There are no trees here; only small wind-swept bushes.
Our camp is on a rocky plateau at the base of Koip peak. Tiny fingers of snow-melt cross a rocky shelf before joining in a tumultuous rush over a thousand foot precipice to rocks below.
A group spirit is emerging. It is an aspect of spiritual community but unique in how it includes nature and a striving to respect the land and each person. The initial lessons from nature, we learn, are not about wilderness or ecology so much as about relationships, connection to God, and an ability to manifest a right attitude toward one another.
Through todays beauty practice one person who has struggled with identity issues, comes to an important realization. She writes,
I realized that I have beauty inside me. I have been afraid to let others see my weaknesses because of a fear of being considered weird. Being different doesn't make me unacceptable. It merely means that only those who see what is inside me will recognize a beauty. Many have eyes which do not see. If others cannot accept what is in me, that means they do not grasp who I am. It doesn't mean I'm not beautiful. It only means they can't see it, just as many people dont perceive Gods glory in creation.
That night we reflect on the day and discuss how an infinite depth exists in each person which ultimately connects into the nature of God. We conclude by recalling verses from our handbook where a poem by William Blake captures todays theme:
Everything that lives is holy.
If the doors of perception were cleansed,
Everything would appear to man as it is infinite.
He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God.
Over the mountain and down to Alger Lake
This morning is cold. Bob Marshall measures a quarter inch of ice in his water bottle. The sun quickly thaws the frost. It also lights up a staircase of switchbacks rising abruptly before us. The ascent to Koip Pass one of the loftiest in the Sierras involves some 65 switchbacks before cresting at 12,300 feet.
With an intimidating wall of rock looming ahead, our focus theme is thanksgiving. This gives us a double challenge: not only will we face the mountain, we also face the task of thankfulness in the face of adversity.
The wind blows ferociously. The upward path seems like it will never end. Even though the sun is shining, it is cold at 12,000 feet. Dehydration is a concern. We have to remember to drink plenty of fluids.
An incredible panorama unfurls as we climb the mountain. Sheets of ice and snow cover mountain tops below, making it seem as if we are hiking through some frozen Arctic land. For several members the unrelenting demand to climb higher and higher is agony. Finally the first hikers reach the top and huddle behind a small rock wind break built by previous hikers. Out of the wind, it is almost warm, a welcome break from what feel like gale force winds.
As we share food and drinks, we also share comments about the ascent. In the process we reveal more and more of our personal lives. Camaraderie and warmth are steadily building.
Bob later volunteers that he would "never have attempted that mountain" if he had not been part of a group. "Im scared of heights," he declares, and "with that wind, I thought I was going to blow off the mountain!"
Another says, "I never knew when the wind might blow me off the trail. I had to confront my fears. Just minutes earlier I was practicing gratitude for the climb and the grandeur. Now I have gratitude for being able to face a form of fear I never before experienced."
Robin later writes, "Hiking up the switchbacks to Koip Pass was great! The higher we went, the more I knew I could do this. What a boost in confidence this brought me."
At the end of the trip Fr. Jacek concluded, "The challenge of climbing Koip Pass turned out to be something that I have come to remember and even cherish."
On the other side of the Pass, we enter an alpine valley surrounded by rocky peaks and ridges. "I am struck by the immensity of the space, its grandeur and austerity," writes Robin, "I've never seen anything like this! I feel moved to let this immensity in, to let it expand my spirit...
"My spirit is cramped by deep wounds and hurts. I brought these to mind and exposed them to this immensity. I acknowledged that these are part of me and that they can make me beautiful so that God in me can transform hurt into beauty. In the process of stretching these hurts into this immense Presence, I felt whole and healed."
"The theme of thanksgiving fit the challenge today," observed Michael. "By being thankful for what was difficult, I realized how thanksgiving can become a way to stay connected to the presence of God. This brings strength to climb other mountains in our lives."
"How easily insights flow in this clear air," comments Maximos. "It seems that climbing to this high place helps us climb spiritually. Or maybe its because we are doing a spiritual practice."
While we were not sure why we find such spiritual elation in this rarified altitude, a dynamic is clearly at work that brings deeper perception to spiritual questions.
The winds continue to blow. The theme for today is reflection on our purpose in life.
Late in the morning a wrangler rides into camp with pack mule in tow. He sports a dusty cowboy hat with the brim curled up on the sides. As he dismounts and unstraps the pack carrying replacement provisions, it is not hard to feel like an old time trail hand has stepped into our camp from out of the last century.
After lunch one person writes about the incessant wind. "I was annoyed by the wind, but then I realized that the wind is part of God speaking to me. With the mountain above and the wind gusting, I realized that the qualities of mountain and wind are inside me. I am a mountain where the wind may roar or whisper, where there is awesome beauty, power, quiet and the presence of God.
Maximos tells a different story. He tried to take a bath in a shallow sun pond, but found it too cold. At least he could wash his pants. After rinsing them he set them on a rock to dry. Whoops! A great gust shrieks down from the mountain and blows them into the air where they are whipped around like an empty sandwich wrapper. He searches for an hour but they are gone. Luckily he has another pair or he would have been a sight on the trail!
Kristi, late for dinner, returns with a harrowing tale. "I was crossing an expanse of boulders which had fallen onto the lakeshore from the cliff above. At a spot where the boulders were loose, I realized I could not put my weight on the rocks in front or in back without causing them to shift. Suddenly I was scared! It was getting dark and cold. Frightened to go forward or backward I was frozen in fear. Help, I prayed. A calm divine voice then spoke to me. I understood that I needed to listen. By pausing each step of the way and listening, I would be led every step of the way. I then safely crossed the rocks."
Afterwards Kristi related that this story has become a metaphor for her life. "Listening is not only important, it can be life saving."
Over Gem Pass to Rush Creek
The wind has calmed. How peaceful this morning is, almost idyllic. It seems like an affront to the beauty of the morning to pack up and go. We just got here.
As we hike down the trail, we take final photographs of Alger Lake. The lake is actually more beautiful from a distance than up close.
Today the trail is mostly downhill. After a gentle ascent to the wooded crest of Gem Pass, we will coast down to Rush Creek, a drop of about 1,500 feet.
Crossing over Gem Pass, we have our first glimpse of the Range of Light. What an exciting moment! One person gets so excited by our first glimpse of the sharp peaks ahead that in an effort to get a better view, he runs up the hillside from the trail. Ah, how magnificent!
Walking back to the trail he takes a wrong angle and becomes disoriented. Not only are the people missing, somehow the trail has "disappeared." He swings quickly from elation to the jolt of "lost in the wilderness." We are two days from the nearest road and we havent seen another hiker all day.
After some yelling and whistling, our lost hiker reconnects hundreds of yards back up the trail. He heard the whistles and found the group. We learn another lesson of how wilderness is not the city.
Rush Creek to Ruby Lake
Our theme today is love. Following lines from Doestoyevskiy we will "love all of creation, every blade of grass, every grain of sand...." This, he says, allows "the mysteries of creation to unfold."
Todays hike takes us to the Clark Lakes and we gain another view of the Range of Light. Lunch is on the grassy shore where we watch occasional rings from rising brook trout. The scent of pines is intense and there is a peace and restfulness in this place.
As we continue up the trail we enter an area frequented by horse packers bringing mule trains to clients along the John Muir Trail. The mules tear up the trail and leave a thick layer of dust and grit. Several times they pass and each time they kick up a cloud of dirt and grime that makes hiking a chore. Our ability to practice love is tested. We propose among ourselves that a separate trail for mule trains would make the back country more hospitable to hikers.
Caption: mule train photo
We turn a corner and there is a uniquely pretty tumbling stream. A riot of flowers carpets the creekside. Ahead we find its source in Thousand Island Lake. We have our first unobstructed view of the Range of Light.
Caption: the group rests along the banks of the headwaters of the San Joaquin river.
"My senses were captured by the beauty of the peaks and the patches of snow," said Fr. Jacek. "I felt the life-giving breath of God which fills the mountains. I am struck at how irrelevant to God and creation are our human standards of adequacy and propriety. Someone might think that the mountains are deficient in shape or color or that the rocks are useless. And yet all are part of this unrepeatable beauty. Creation exudes a joy and self-acceptance at being what God made it to be. There is no pretense here, no fear of inadequacy or false worry. I heard a silent invitation to let go of the human tyranny of judgements and shoulds and to see with the eyes of God the beauty and goodness of creation both outside of me and within me."
Now we connect to the John Muir Trail. Near Thousand Island lake, we meet a guide who has brought groups into the High Country for years. He says that there are far fewer hikers in the wilderness now than twenty-five years ago. "There used to be two or three times as many people hiking on these trails when I first came up here."
This puzzling insight sets off a reflection and leads us to discuss the benefits of wilderness and why a "back to nature" movement is sorely needed.
An hour later we find our home for the next two nights on a long outcropping below Ruby Lake. The San Joaquin river hums in the canyon far below as it cascades downhill.
An Extra Day at Ruby Lake
In the morning we have special prayers for Bob and Beth who must depart early.
After a round of hugs and good byes, Bob says, "The group dynamics stand out for me. The quality of relationship is a remarkable dimension to the wilderness trip. Deep relationships are forged and the best comes out of people. This builds community."
Beth Marshall, always gracious, extends heart felt thanks to everyone. "I loved the experiences of being closer to God," she notes, "especially while in the Range of Light. I learned that I need to take more time for quiet and meditation, and not always be doing things."
A group walks with them to the next lake, escorting them on the first leg of what is a nine mile journey. We sing "Happy trails to you" as they disappear down the John Muir Trail. As a group weve become so close that we miss them as soon as they hike over the hill. Camp wont be the same with Beth and Bob gone.
That evening reflection continues. Robin observes that to hear God clearly through nature we need a minimum of human distraction. "Wilderness provides this possibility."
"When one spends time in wilderness, one's interior landscape moves from urban concerns to one dominated by nature. For those with a predisposition to hear God through Creation, time winnows and cleanses ears, eyes, and heart so that the Spirit can encounter God more easily. Our lives become simplified. We become more God's direct creation whereas in our busy lives we live an existence heavily shaped by social concerns. In the wilderness we slow down and enter the rhythms of Creation. This makes a huge difference."
After dinner we sit around a campfire and discuss the day. A key insight is that when the silence of nature is matched by interior silence, we ease the pathway of insights from creation. As discussion continues, the stars come out and twinkle. In this clear air, there are so many that it seems like a hundred thousand specs of light are helping us recover creations wisdom.
Down and out
This is our eighth day on the trail and it will be a long day as we hike out to civilization. Our journey has discovered more than we expected. Our journals cant capture even a fraction of the insights because they are things of the spirit. The challenge will be to nurture and continue the insights gained in wilderness.
Were back on the John Muir Trail and it seems like a crowded freeway after the quiet back trails weve traveled. We encounter more people in an hour than weve seen in the previous seven days. When we break for lunch there is elation from all our experiences, but it mingles with sadness that we are leaving.
We pass a roaring waterfall, then drop down to the San Joaquin river. Throughout the trip there has always been more to grasp than our capacity allows.
The trip kindled deep reflections in participants; it also flushed personal issues to the surface. Wilderness coupled with prayer created a spiritual transparency so that inner attitudes readily surfaced. In this way the wilderness trip is not only a journey into beauty, but a journey into reflection and healing.
Michael observed that he never realized that there could be so much spiritual healing in wilderness. "Clearly there is a natural therapy in wilderness. It gives us a renewed sense of priorities."
"The key," he continued, "is intentional connection to God. Wilderness speaks to everybody, but to amplify its voice, one must absorb its lessons. This is why the exercises were important. They help nature come alive. Despite our insights, we only scratched the surface. We need this today because our lives are out of touch with the sensitivities that wilderness cultivates."
Fred remarks that this is nothing new. This was the message of Thoreau and Muir in an earlier era. Environmental groups have deemphasized the religious side of their founders wilderness writings, but it is precisely in reconnection to God that the deeper side of wilderness opens.
"We need to help people get back into nature," declares Larry. "If we can do this, we will provide an important service because nature will teach them."
Alison found that quiet while hiking opened her to a unique experience.
"When I was alone and could get out of my head, I would stop paying attention to the physical difficulties of hiking and go beyond into seeing what was happening around me, especially the intricate life systems of the insects, birds, and plants. At those times, sometimes hours into the days hike, my mind would leave my body and wander across the land scape. I felt I was flying with the great ravens on Koip pass or digging with the Belding ground squirrels, even moving with the wind over the wild flowers. It was as though my mind tuned to a frequency that isnt accessible in my ordinary daily life."
Maximos added, "I learned to see myself clearer. Because there are few distractions it was easier to see ourselves out in wilderness that in the city. I feel more connection now to the human community because I faced some things in myself that I never thought about before, and I feel more appreciation for nature."
"The trip came exactly when I needed to reconnect to nature and spirituality," recalled Kristi. "Physically, the hiking was strenuous but empowering. It taught me about the strength that is within me. Spiritually, I reconnected to myself and my faith. So much healing took place in the mountains."
"What made this wilderness experience unique," reflected Br. Jacek, "was the explicit spiritual dimension. The regular prayer times connected to the personal and the group reflection was powerful. Thanks to this program, Ive been transformed by the insights Ive gained."
"I signed up for this wilderness trip to seek God," wrote Linda. "I sought healing and spiritual growth, but I received far more. There is no match for the spectacular views of the High Sierras. The magnificent scenery overflowed with holiness, majesty and awe! For all of us, what most touched us is that a glimpse of God was revealed."
The Opening the Book of Nature will provide a similar exploration from July 10-18, 2003. After reflecting on the lessons of 2001 and 2002, we will note use a backpack format for this 2003 event. Instead we will hike into a base camp from which we make day hikes. This will allow greater emphasis on the spiritual side of wilderness. Stay tuned for the report from this 2003 event, or consider joining us. A registration form follows.
Opening the Book of Nature
Into the Range of Light: An Invitation
A 2003 Pilgrimage
into the Spiritual Lessons of Wilderness
The Opening of the Book of Nature program will host a pilgrimage into the religious values and experiences of wilderness. A dozen individuals will hike into a base camp deep in the High Sierras "Range of Light," from July 10th - 18th, 2003. This is the region which John Muir, toward the end of his life, after traveling to many of most beautiful places around the globe, described as "the single most inspirational spot in all the world."
You are invited to be part of this unique spiritual journey. Our program begins on Thursday afternoon at the Tuolumne Meadows Campground in the heart of Yosemite National Park. Two days are spent on acclimatization, orientation and preparatory day hikes. The backpack journey begins on Saturday from a trailhead near Mammoth Lakes outside of the park on Saturday, July 12. From there well hike near the headwaters of the San Joaquin River and set up an interim camp before moving up to our base camp in the Range of Light on Monday. Day hikes into a variety of interesting areas will augment on our daily exercises and reflections. Well exit on week later on Friday afternoon, July 18th, and visit a public hot spring for cleanup prior to the conclusion of the program.
Our program focuses upon key spiritual questions, cultivates experiences, and uses a variety of techniques coupled with discussions, and time to share with others to provide new insights to Gods creation. Those who have done similar explorations report that it can indelibly change ones life (see the article, "Wilderness Diary" on our website Opening the Book of Nature).
The orientation involves both hiking and discussions from a base camp at Tuolumne Meadows campground in Yosemite National Park. The preparatory day hikes will travel cross country and cover seven to ten miles.
Once we are on the trail and hiking with packs, our pace will be slower and distances less to ensure gradual preparation for the rigors of the trail.
The fee is divided into two parts: the cost of logistics and the cost of the program. Pay according to your ability. Because of back country permit limitations, only one dozen people can participate.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - Registration Form - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Please sign me up for the ten day wilderness retreat to be held in the High Sierras from Thursday, July 10th, through Saturday, July 18th, 2003.
Logistics fee $ 285
This covers the orientation campground, mule packer food resupply, wilderness permits, camp food and special freeze dried trail food, plastic covered handbook with maps, bear canisters, and staff. (Some scholarship help may be available)
Registration fee sliding scale ____
The registration fee is a sliding scale fee of between $115 and $715. + $ _____
Pay according to your ability.
Optional scholarship ____
This provides assistance for those who need help:
TOTAL: $ _____
City, State, Zip ______________________________
Please return your fee in the enclosed envelope. A $100 non-refundable deposit holds you place on this trip. Preparatory materials will be sent to you soon. Car pooling will be coordinated from Reno and San Francisco International Airports.
409 Mendocino Avenue, Suite A,
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Call if you have questions, (707) 573-3161