I turn 60 next month. I will turn 60 only once, and so I’ve been thinking about what I might do to acknowledge this milestone (and try to understand how I could already be 60!). This led me to dig up a little essay, which I called Living in Awe, that I wrote when I turned 50. I can now say without hesitation that I am so glad I carved out a few days to step away from my busy life ten years ago to acknowledge that milestone. A decade later, I can still remember lots of details from retreating into that late-winter, northern New Mexico landscape – my first good look at an acorn woodpecker, hiking up out of the drainage into a landscape healing from a wildfire that burned many years before, gingerly crossing the icy creek while questioning the thickness and strength of the ice…
LIVING IN AWE
“Looks like you’ll have the whole place to yourself since this is the only backcountry permit we’ve issued. Have fun!” With these words from the park ranger fresh on my mind, I strap on my pack and begin a four-day solo in the 23,000-acre wilderness of northern New Mexico’s Bandelier National Monument. A few raindrops and 30 minutes of easy walking and I have left the developed part of the park, including the ruins that are the park’s main attractions, behind me. Not that I am disinterested in these incredible remains of a centuries-old thriving indigenous village, but I am here for other reasons.
I am hiking up Frijoles Canyon, hopping back and forth across the partially frozen creek every few minutes. Frijoles Creek, which will be my water source for the next several days, has been eroding prolific deposits of “tuff” – rock comprised of ash from nearby volcanic activity – for thousands of years. As the ash solidified, countless air pockets created natural cavities in the soft rock, the larger ones becoming the cliff dwellings of the native peoples that called this area home up until about 450 years ago.
The trees are all very familiar to me, dominated by ponderosa pine, Douglas and white fir. Replace the tuff with pinkish granite, and I’d think I’m hiking the Devil’s Canyon Trail in Pueblo Mountain Park. Ground dwelling plants that include holly grape and grama grass, accompanied by plenty of Gambel oak, make me feel right at home.
After five miles of hiking, with camp set up and water bottles filled, I have the afternoon to do whatever I please. With a warmth-eating shadow already beginning to envelop my campsite, I scramble up the east side of the canyon and find a large flat rock on which to enjoy the remaining sunshine. A canyon wren sings its lovely melody as I notice some feelings of loneliness that often accompany the early hours of a solo. “More and more I am realizing the natural world is my connection to myself,” says Terry Tempest Williams. The loneliness is a good sign – without the distractions of the peopled world I left a little while ago, I am much more aware of the natural world I am immersed in, and I am much more aware of myself. That’s why I have come to this wilderness.
Satisfied after a simple dinner, I am sitting just outside my tent, dressed warm for a chilly evening, writing with gloved hands. The air is perfectly still. The ponderosa pines surrounding my campsite are black silhouettes against a still-bright but quickly fading western sky. I am facing an exquisite crescent moon, the illumined sliver facing up, gently cradling the remaining earthshined-lit orb like a cupped hand. A few small white clouds lazily drift by. The loneliness has already morphed into an over riding sense of pleasure, basking in the solitude and beauty of this place. In a few days, I turn 50. I am here in this wilderness to turn 50 deliberately. Just to have reached this age seems impossible – I was just 30 the other day, hiking the Tower Trail with my two young kids. A few days before that, I was 15, contemplating life on a lonely beach in eastern Long Island. How could I be 50?
These wilderness days have come and gone, and now my backcountry solo is nearly history. In an hour or so, I will hike out of here and return to the people I love, my work, my life. I have hiked, explored, watched birds. I did a lot of thinking. “To live life fully, to avoid devoting your whole life to accomplishing things, you have to be aware of death.” “Everything is transient. Without that awareness, how can you truly live in awe of what you see – the seasons, the sun.” Not that I expect to die any time soon, but, with fifty already here, these words by Lorry Nelson ring wise to me.
Accomplishing things. Living in awe. I think I am pretty good at accomplishing things. One thing I’ve landed upon during these wilderness days is that, as much as I may continue to get things done, I do not want “accomplishing things” to be the dominant theme of my life in my post-50 years. No, it’s the idea of living my life always in awe – of red volcanic cliffs full of ancient air pockets, of the mystery of indigenous peoples hidden in the ruins of their village, of the crescent moon graced by lazy clouds, of the song of the canyon wren, of the eyes of my grandchildren as they watch birds at the feeder, of three decades being married to my teenage girlfriend – this is what I am drawn to.
So, I take with me from this wilderness experience a renewed realization that it is my love for the people in my life and my love for Nature that are responsible for all the meaning in my life – these loves make me the person I am at the half-century point in my life. And, I take with me the intention that “living in awe” will be the dominant theme of my life after 50. And, I’ll be back! ~ Dave Van Manen, March 2006