For four days we will tromp on trail, single file, ascending and descending. But first my wife and I stand side by side and bow together. We bow to the place herself, and to her innumerable names and forms. Place en-creatured, place en-planted, place en-stoned, en-watered, en- weathered, en-fungied, en-peopled, en-spirited. Each step is also a bow. Tens of thousands of bows in thirty miles of wild walking.
As we walk we also wild, allowing this germanic noun to blossom into verb. We wild ourselves as we hike. Remembering the power of our bodies: the ancestral gifts of our sturdy backs and long striding legs. Remembering that we are a migratory species. Sublimely adaptable, sure of foot, clever with tools, and born to interpret terrain. In the ancient ardor of our trek, we remember the dignity of our own wildness.
We bear witness – along with so many other beings – to the great song of the land, the stories of each biome, each entity. Every kingdom has a tale to tell. As we push skyward, with calves stretched tight, a swarm of feral honey bees gathers in the distance, drones and looms above us, then travels like a cloud over the ridge. A horned lizard slips off the trail and settles into perfect camouflage with granite soil and dry manzanita leaves. Ceanothus grows in shady long tunnels shrouding the path; many miles of shouldering through leaves our backpacks adorned with piles of fine powdered pollen and soft white flowers.
On the third evening of our journey, the wind is high, the sun is low, and we are in need of a campsite. I ask the spirits to guide me, saying simply “please lead me to a safe sleeping place,” holding in my mind a small meadow, ringed by tall bushes and trees. Improbably I clamber over dead wood and past thickets of poison oak – a sinewy, off-trail meander – to exactly what I prayed for.
Was it instinct that carried me? An unconscious understanding of the landscape? Or was it the subtle voices of the nearly silent beings – the trees and grasses – calling me? Or perhaps the even subtler hands of ancestors and spirits seldom seen or felt gently directing my steps? The magic runs deep in both directions. Primordial instinct or spirit guides? The Mystery remains untarnished.
By mid-morning of the final day we’ve eaten the last of our provisions. Bags are licked clean of crumbs and salt. As I walk, I snack on miner’s lettuce and the fiddleheads of ferns – a kind of fast paced foraging. Potent little plants become part of my body and fuel for the human fire. This day, along with sweat and calloused toes, we add empty bellies to the pilgrims’ sacrifice. In the last mile even our water runs out. We approach the gates of our destination, a zen mountain center, appropriately empty, begging bowls filled only with air.
At the supposed end of our actually infinite pilgrimage my wife and I bow again. First to the place, in gratitude for safe passage and for the blessings of each step. Then to each other, honoring our wild selves at home in this country.
Plates heaped high with fresh bread and tofu scramble gathered at the kitchen’s back door, we stop to say grace. It is a daily practice for me to offer thanks before each meal. But it is seldom as embodied and rich as when accompanied by true hunger. We pause to acknowledge that we need this meal. It is an offering of work and love and life. And it will in turn allow us to work and love and live. We bow, we smile, we eat.