Source to Sea

Mountain Views
by Mark Downey -- September 9th, 2013

My current line of work might be best described as guided wanderings in the desert. Ideally, myself and one or two other instructors are the “guided” part, and our clients compose the “wandering” part. Sometimes there’s a destination, like a spring or a gorgeous viewpoint. Sometimes we’re headed to a logistics-oriented goal, like a re-supply drop. But often, really, we’re just out there guides and clients all wandering together.

For most of the people that come adventuring on our therapeutic expeditions, the destination is not as important as figuring out how to bear the journey. In fact, most of the time we guides leave the destinations a secret or else make them up as we go along. We do this so our participants learn to live in the present moment without always relying on the dangling carrot of an external goal. Because it’s easy for most of us to stay positive when we can see the way forward and feel in control of our world, right? But how do we respond when the plan is derailed and things turn out differently than anticipated?

I was asking myself these questions when, on a recent trip, my group found ourselves pinned down by desert thunderstorms. After a few days of hiding from lightning, the group was getting restless. Our camp was located in a hollow between several hills, though, and there was nowhere to go without exposing ourselves to greater danger.

Now there have been times in my life when I’ve been stuck in one place and loved it (Paris, thanks to an airline complication, comes to mind) – but this wasn’t one of them. That part of our field area – the southern tip of the Great Basin ecosystem – is a labyrinth of low trees that, if you’re not on the move, can cause you to feel claustrophobic. Genus Juniperus dominates the system, spaced evenly like overgrown shrubs (very much like the eastern redcedar scattered throughout North Carolina’s Piedmont), and a few gangly pinyon pines sulk here and there. The ground is covered in sagebrush and a compilation of volcanic and sedimentary rocks.

It’s tricky to navigate in the Great Basin, thanks to that uniform vegetation but also because of some peculiar hydrology. The Great Basin is called that because water inside it flows nowhere. Snow, rain, springs – anything in the Basin just seeps into the ground. You can follow a wash for a while, but it will eventually start braiding out, and you’ll have to make a choice. Whichever branch you pick, though, will branch out again and again, until you find yourself in a huge dendritic fractal mess, headed in no particular direction. And the elevated topography this system creates is just as confusing, nothing like the intuitive Appalachians or Rockies where ridges connect summits with coves in-between and rivers at the bottom. Instead, in the Great Basin, singular hills rise from the open range, and spines of peaks zigzag a while before disappearing or ending abruptly in cliffs.

Anyway, it’s a wild landscape, and there we sat in a small valley, not sure where to go, waiting for the sky to clear. In the course of our sitting we’d been talking amongst ourselves about the powerlessness we felt in the face of a desert that doesn’t care about our preferences or comfort. And also about the human ability to choose our own attitude despite those factors beyond our control.

Finally, on the third day, a window of open skies, and we decided to go do something with it. The other guide and I gathered the group and explained that we were going to ascend the small mountain at whose base we were camped. “Why?” and “What’s at the top?” I heard some ask. I didn’t answer, in part so they could start accessing that strength within, but mostly because I myself didn’t have any idea what was at the top. I knew what I wanted, though — a majestic view of the desert.

So we climbed, and it was not easy. Steep incline with shale-y rock and exposed roots. Every few minutes I reminded the group to step carefully, while in my head reviewing the differences between sprains and breaks, and how best to treat each. We trudged for a while, and when we finally reached the summit, you could hardly tell we’d arrived. It was covered in trees so thick only the angle under my boots gave it away.

Through some of the branches, you could just glimpse the surrounding landscape falling away for dozens of miles. But there was no rock or stump or anything on which to stand and see beyond. I knew it was out there, so much tumbled beauty. I knew if only we could look upon it, we’d all be glad we’d climbed. But we couldn’t.

All that work, for nothing to see? The clients stood there – or bent double – expectantly, breathing hard. My partner and I looked at each other, shrugging sheepishly, but telepathically agreed that this was part of the plan, an opportunity to grow. We had everyone spread out on top of the hill and sit quietly by themselves, challenging the clients to think about what emotions they were experiencing and what the climb-with-no-view had meant to them.

Internally, personally, my first reaction was disappointment. Out in the desert, it’s common to battle up a hill and find reward in a spectacular scene, with canyons and mountains in the distance, or red and white mesas like enormous horizon caterpillars. Or, to find ancient cowboy graves, or the castoff bleached antlers of elk, even the obsidian arrowhead caches of a civilization long gone. So to crouch under the junipers, wondering what I was missing – yes, disappointment.

But beneath that initial reaction whispered something deeper, the half-remembered answer to a question: What can the journey mean if the destination you reach isn’t the one for which you traveled?

The answer was on another mountain, one from my past. During grad school, I spent a year in Madagascar, living in a deforested landscape. Out my window, far across the degradation rose an escarpment too steep to farm, still covered in dark emerald primary forest. For about six months I gazed at that cliff before deciding to make a pilgrimage to its dripping boughs. Miles and miles of muddy trails, river crossings, remote hamlets, and quiet rice paddies. I finally reached the hill at the base of the cliff. At first it was just steep hiking, but that quickly turned into boulder scrambling. At one point, I was actually climbing trees and hopping from the trunk of one to the base of another. And then, eventually, there was nowhere else to go. The cliff loomed a straight vertical wall in front of me, and I stood sweaty and muddy on a ledge staring up at it. I couldn’t have been more than a quarter of the way.

I felt defeated, disappointed. Looking down at my feet, about to sigh, I saw in the fallen leaves a tiny chameleon. Starkly pale against the dark wet granite and composting undergrowth. A horn above each swiveling eye. Fragile and rare, one of the island’s endemic beauties. And so minuscule  — not as long as my pinky — that I could have easily missed it, had I not been hanging my head in despair. What a treasure. I almost cried. And instead of pushing forward or turning back, I spent the afternoon with that chameleon, watching it go about its unhurried business.




I had set out that morning to accomplish something grand – to ascend that distant rainforest and gaze upon its Olympian beauty. But this chameleon soul I met instead showed me something more precious: that the glory of the forest is reflected even in the tiniest of its creatures – if only we allow ourselves to see it.

Descending back to the rice paddies, I knew that that trek had not been in vain. Treasure can be found on any journey.

I remembered all this in Nevada, as I sat atop that other forested mountain, and I realized that once again my experience was different than my expectation at the outset. I also noted the irony of my disappointment: back in Madagascar, all I had wanted was to sit under the trees at the top of a mountain, yet was denied.

There was no animal spirit guide or other tangible discovery there in the desert, but that irony and the remembered chameleon launched me into a much-needed meditation on my attitude. While most things happening in the world around us are out of our control – the weather, gas prices, other peoples’ decisions, canopy closure, whatever – we maintain power over this one element, the most foundational thing: to choose our attitudes. I have to constantly ask my clients and myself: How is this experience different than what you expected? How will you choose to respond? What can you learn about yourself, about the world, from this?

And there’s a way to answer these questions that reveals a world infested with tiny horned chameleons.

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