I intended these stories to be a chapter in my book, Rocky Mountain Adventure Collection. I removed them to reduce the book size. My publisher told me that I had to remove some material. This was back in the days of publishing real books containing bound paper. These stories about meditating and relaxing in the mountains didn’t fit the adventure theme. I felt that a chapter on meditation would offer readers a break from the adventure stories. I could share a different type of mountain experience. At the time, although I liked the material, I thought my readers might see it as odd. After reading some of John Muir’s outdoor adventure stories, I found that he wrote of similar experiences. Many outdoor adventurers write about their spiritual connections with the mountains. After 25 years of collecting dust, I retrieved my original writing from the basement to refurbish it. I found the pages in a three-ring binder with my other book notes. I typed the draft of these stories using an ancient computer, a Commodore 64.
Many famous and not so famous people venture into the mountains to find solitude. While working on the Manhattan Project, the famous Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer retreated to the mountains to clear his thoughts and relax. Jesus ascended into the mountains to pray in peace. Monks, Saints, scientists, engineers, and others go to the mountains to gather their thoughts. It is a place where they can escape the everyday pressures associated with their lives. Regardless of what people do, most of them have stress that they don’t need. During my four and a half years of rigorous engineering study, I often felt overwhelmed. Stress was the worst during the final exams at the end of the semester. That is when I felt stressed out. For me, the mountain wilderness was the ideal place to relieve my stress – no matter what caused it. Even though I lived near the mountains, I couldn’t always afford to get in the car and drive to them. A few trips during college and more trips to the mountains in the summers was enough to rejuvenate me. Mountains and forests have always beckoned me to their tranquil environments. I continue to escape to them as often as I can.
Of course, you don’t have to go to the mountains to meditate or relax, but mountainous areas put me at peace with the world. In the mountains the opportunities for relaxation are limitless. There are many places to choose from. You can relax next to a stream, beneath a pine tree, on a boulder, on a summit, or by an alpine lake. Rugged mountain wilderness areas are difficult to develop into cities and streets. That makes them appealing to those seeking to escape the noise of developed places.
Wilderness areas offer places where you can get away from it all. You don’t necessarily have to hike miles into the wilderness to find quiet and solitude. There are places to relax in nature that are only a few hundred feet from a parking lot. You could be next to a stream where the sounds of tumbling water drown out background noises. There are places where you don’t have to venture far from a road to find yourself surrounded by nature. In fact, there a many places you can be on a road and surrounded by nature. Some people can find solitude in a wooded area of a city park. For a trained practitioner, relaxing is a state of mind, not something that is dependent on a location. I need a place that I find relaxing.
Everyone has certain characteristics for the place they like to relax or meditate. My favorite places are on the tundra above timberline, deep in a forest, or sitting next to flowing water. The alpine tundra is high up and hard to reach. It is a place far away from the stressful noises of busy highways. I want to hear nature when I’m in deep relaxation. Forests are also great places to relax. A casual hike a half-mile into the forest gets me the minimum depth for solitude. I’m also quite comfortable being five or more miles deep into a forest. The beauty of being next to flowing water is that it drowns out other distracting sounds. It allows you to focus on the natural sounds of water tumbling over, under, and around rocks. Within a minute, my mind drifts to a place of calm. A place of tranquility.
Peace above Timberline
Relaxing in the sun on a grassy tundra at 12,000 feet above sea level is one of the most refreshing activities I’ve found. It is almost as if one visit a year could relieve the frustration and stress for that entire year. It is amazing what one hour above timberline can do to relax the mind. Most of the time that I’m in the high country I want to be moving, climbing, jogging, hiking, or skiing. But, even the most avid adventurers need a break. Some days I yearn to hike up above timberline to an alpine pasture in the sky to relax. Some days while descending from the high peaks I stop in the afternoon sun to rest. Sometimes I’m so exhausted from climbing that I must take a break on the way down to recover my energy.
I lived in the eastern United States for a few years, Georgia, and West Virginia. There are mountains out there, but none high enough to get above timberline. There are high places with similar characteristics in the Appalachian Mountains. But the experience of being above timberline in the Rocky Mountains is a unique and special for me.
There are roads that go above timberline, so you don’t have to hike or climb to get there. When hiking up through the forest to the land above timberline you experience the sensations of both environments. I recently experienced this when I climbed up high in the James Peak Wilderness Area in Colorado. I started hiking in the dense evergreen forest. As I hiked higher, I felt and saw the environment change. The trees grew shorter with increasing elevation. Hiking to timberline makes you more aware of the changes that occur at higher elevations. Changes you might miss if you drove a car up there. Some of the roads are paved, such as Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Above timberline, the air is crisp. Views are spectacular. People are scarce. Insects are rare. Water is pure. Life is good. I’ve found tranquility in many places up high. These places include mountain summits, glacial bowls, rocky ridges, alpine meadows, glacial valleys, and alpine lakes. Some people would consider these places as sacred. Of all my experiences there is a place that stands apart from the others. It is a flat layer of granite high up in a glacial valley in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area of Colorado. It is in a valley that I crossed during many climbing excursions among the Indian Peaks. Craig, my best friend from high school, accompanied me on many of these outings. It was second nature for us to stop in this area to relax after descending from the jagged mountaintops. The Continental Divide passes near this area, and peak after peak rise to over 13,000 feet in elevation. There are no trails to this place. This place ranks high among the most beautiful places that I have ever been.
One afternoon, after climbing to the summit of a thirteener, Craig and I collapsed on a patch of grass in the valley. An otherwise rocky valley. I lied motionless on my back in a shower of sunshine. At high elevations the sun is intense and comforting to a fatigued body. You can sense the temperature drop from a passing cloud that blocks the direct sun. For those precious moments, I focused on the sensations. I felt the sunshine soak into my skin. My body absorbed the energy from the sun’s rays. Without food, nature replenished my energy.
It was also an intoxicating feeling. Some people call it a Rocky Mountain High. The warm, “thin” air was comforting. My mind drifted into a meditative state. I envisioned a white ball of serene light energy. This ball of bright light blended with the sunlight that penetrated my eyelids. It felt like an out-of-body experience for a few moments. I felt completely at peace my surroundings. I felt more alive than ever before in the presence of the beautiful setting. All my body’s stresses and negative emotions dissipated. At that time in my life, I had the stresses of being a teenager. Life seemed harder than it was, but we don’t know this at the time we are going through it. In that relaxed state I relished the present. I reached deep into my mind to purge even the deepest stores of negative energy. The last waves of any negative thoughts radiated away into the air.
Then I felt like I had melded with the natural surroundings. I was as close to being “one with nature” as possible. These mountains were 65 million years old. At one time a thick glacial ice sheet covered this area. Glaciers, gravity, and erosion shaped the landscape. Change is subtle, yet always happening. The streams of this high valley are true natural streams. If you gaze into the clear water, you can see particles of sand in motion. Those small grains of sand grind away at larger rock in the streambed. During spring melt, chunks of ice topple small rocks and push them along. I thought about these processes as the way things are. It isn’t positive or negative. It is nature in its purest form. That was where my subconscious mind took me. It is hard to keep yourself from thinking about things. Try to do nothing and think of nothing.
As powerful and enduring as the mountains are, they also have life-and-death cycles on a grand geologic scale. Relentless entropic processes continually reshape the mountains. Natural forces will erode the Rocky Mountains down to the size of the Appalachians. Later in their life they will become like rolling hills on the plains. In the end they will be sediment on the sea floor. I thought of this lifecycle as I relaxed, relating it to my own life. My thoughts came back to the pleasures that life yields, and the pleasures of being in the mountains. The same forces that erode the mountains create beautiful streams, lakes, peaks, valleys, and forests. The forces of nature spawn new life. The marmots, deer, elk, mountain sheep, bears, rabbits, birds, people, and plants exist because of this ecological balance.
Even though humankind is unique from other animal life, we are part of nature. People don’t always realize that they are dependent upon nature for their survival. This thinking is changing as more people take actions to preserve nature. People are working harder to conserve natural resources. The mountains provide us with life-sustaining fresh water. There were times in our history that progress took precedence over the environment. There is an environmental cost for the modern conveniences that developed nations enjoy. We can correct some damages, but not all. These were thoughts that my mind wandered to when untethered by my conscious brain. Sometimes my mind wandered into philosophical issues.
There are many people who worry too much about the impact of humans on the environment. In my lifetime I’ve seen dramatic changes for the good of the planet. Millions of people work to preserve natural resources and to find ways to live in harmony with Earth. The mountains will endure. With time, nature will heal itself. It has been through far worse conditions than humans could ever dish out.
From those deeper thoughts, I drifted to comforting present thoughts. Like a hawk gliding in the wind, I soared above the ground. I swooped back and forth across the valley, absorbing the sights, sounds, and aromas. I saw the splendor and beauty of the entire area. For a few minutes, I circled the peaks and swooped down the valley enjoying the fascinating topography of the mountains. I smiled as I experienced the joy of being in nature. Time didn’t matter. I was in the present there and then.
Lying motionless in the short grass, my thoughts returned to where I was in the world. When I returned to my physical self, I felt rejuvenated, and ready to face the world again. I could abandon conventional life and spend every day exploring the mountains. Should I have done that? Did my parents, teachers, and society condition me to live a productive life of contributing to society? I felt compelled to do what I could to help conserve natural places as natural resources vital to all life. Later in life I discovered the writings of John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Henry David Thoreau, Anatoli Boukreev, and Jon Krakauer. I didn’t realize that it was possible to survive as a fulltime student of nature or as a mountaineer. Reflecting on my life, I’m not sure if I served a better purpose living a conventional life versus if I had sought a life of living day-by-day in nature. Did I miss my true calling?
Following our revitalizing rest, Craig and I were ready to climb again. We splashed some stream water on our faces, got up, and started climbing again. I had boundless energy in my younger days. We didn’t make it to the summit of a second thirteener that day. When we were midway up the mountain a mid-afternoon thunderstorm formed. We decided to make a hasty descent. It was as if Mother Nature had allowed us to have some fun but didn’t want us to overdo it. What is wrong with having too much fun?
Meditating in the mountains helps me relax and be more aware of the mountains I enjoy so much. Relaxing in the mountains is a wonderful way to reconnect with nature. Whenever I’m losing my way in life, I return to the mountains for the wisdom they provide. There are many pitfalls in life associated with money, success, careers, and worldly pleasures. Solitude in the wilderness is how I sense God’s presence. Being in the mountains keeps me grounded in life.
Relaxing to the sound of flowing water is another excellent way to purge stress. The rhythmic sound of water flowing across and splashing against rocks is hypnotic. It gives your aural senses something to focus on while clearing the clutter from your mind. The splashing water masks other distracting sounds. This allows you to focus your thoughts or to let your mind drift.
Streams are pleasant places to relax beside. You can listen to and watch the flowing water. The flowing water is soothing. There have been a few lazy afternoons that I’ve spent an hour or more sitting on a rock out in a stream. With water flowing around me I stare into the current focused on the swirling and splashing sounds. Sometimes it feels good to do nothing. It can be therapeutic. One memorable experience was during a climbing trip to Mount Princeton in the Collegiate Peaks of Colorado. I was with two good friends preparing to climb the Fourteener. Craig was my best friend from high school. Sean was someone I met during college at the University of Wyoming. We planned to camp near the base of the mountain for a day before the climb to let ourselves adjust to the elevation.
Mount Princeton stands 14,197 feet above sea level. It is a majestic peak. That trip was my first time exploring the beautiful Collegiate Peaks. We established camp near the base of Mount Princeton in a well forested area. After we pitched the tents and built a campfire, we went in separate directions to explore the area around camp. Sean walked upstream from camp. Craig crashed on a sun-soaked boulder. I ventured down to the edge of Chalk Creek, a small mountain stream.
It was a sunny day in late May. The temperature was in the mid to upper fifties. I was a little tense thinking about the upcoming climb. We weren’t as prepared as I thought we should be. In those days, we had carefree attitudes. We ventured out half-cocked most of the time. Some adventures failed because we didn’t do our homework. Once while searching for a cave, we drove a hundred miles, then hiked all afternoon. Later we discovered that we were miles from the cave we were trying to find. Now, in my fifties, I understand how a young person could go Into the Wild without a map and get into trouble. I’m referring to the book written by Jon Krakauer about the life of a carefree young man who ventured into Alaska’s wilderness half-cocked.
At the stream, I did some rock-hopping back and forth across the flowing water. That was one of my favorite pastimes. I enjoyed testing my balancing skills by leaping from rock-to-rock. I was also searching for a sun-warmed boulder to lie upon to think. I found a “comfortable” boulder to rest on. It was an island with flowing water on all sides.
This trip was my last trip to the mountains before entering America’s workforce. I wanted to enjoy every minute of it. I didn’t know when my next trip to the Rocky Mountains would be. In exchange for my college tuition, I volunteered to serve in the Air Force for the next four years. My first destination was for training in Wichita Falls, Texas, which is a long way from the mountains. After a month in Texas, I would be off to Atlanta, Georgia for my first fulltime job after college. I wanted to absorb every sight, sound, and smell hoping it would last until my next trip to the high country. Again, at the time, the thought of being a mountain bum didn’t even cross my mind as an option. My parents had instilled in me that I had to work to survive.
After getting comfortable on the rock, I concentrated on the rhythmic sound of the splashing water. Dense pine trees hid the streambank giving it a sense of seclusion. In moments the flowing water carried me into a hypnotic state. At that moment, nothing else mattered. I was one with the stream. I drifted deeper into relaxation while trying to not to think about anything outside of where I was. My mind was free to wander. For about an hour I stayed still while tuned in with nature. I listened to what nature was saying through the tumbling sounds of the water around me. It was relaxing. It left me feeling optimistic about life. I felt completely at peace with my surroundings. I was in tranquility in the mountains.
Later, the three of us sat around a campfire talking about our futures. The glow of the flames flickered on the faces of my friends. It was the perfect end to a wonderful day. The next day we climbed as high as we could on Mt. Princeton (14,197 ft). We didn’t want to follow a trail, so we charted our own course up a gully on a steep mountainside with lots of loose debris. The area we climbed up is named the Chalk Cliffs, a dangerous route. We made it up to 12,000 feet elevation, then a series of dangerous thunderstorms moved in. We were in the open above timberline. With lightning in the area, we decided to descend. The mountain will be there for another attempt.
Those were two of many similar experiences I have enjoyed during my life. Sometimes it feels good to blank out my thoughts allowing nothingness to creep in. It is difficult to let your mind go blank. We’re always thinking about something, even in our sleep. Try to make time to relax in a natural setting on a regular basis. It will work wonders for your physical and mental health.
Afterward: This blog is dedicated to friends that I shared many outdoor adventures with. Sean and Craig have passed from this world far too soon. I’m thankful for the adventures we shared, and the memories we made.