Annie Dillard says in her book Pilgrim At Tinker Creek “Consciousness itself does not hinder living in the present. In fact, it is only to a heightened awareness that the great door to the present opens at all.” she later says “…self-consciousness does hinder the experience of the present. It is the one instrument that unplugs all the rest.” she later says, “Self-consciousness is the curse of the city and all that sophistication implies.”
This morning as I was reading her book my mind began to wander back to a place I once visited buried deep in the mountains near the Buffalo River. I was working at a pizza place and several of the young employees had made plans to take this “trip” to a special site, which only one of them had ever been too. I was invited to join them and not having anything better going on, I agreed. We did not set foot in the vicinity of that destination until it was so dark that we had to use flashlights to see the way, it was down a treacherous winding hillside, one that slopes in a way that only a goat could enjoy. I recall my regrets of agreement early on, for one thing I was well over 20 years older than any of the rest of the group, and not in good shape. I fell behind them many times and one of the 6 or so young ones would have to wait for me to catch up. We hiked down this hill moving fast and it took us about one hour. I was so tired by the time we got to the bottom that I would never have turned to go back. But upon embarking the next challenge to get to our final destiny, one I knew nothing about, I was beginning to give the idea of turning and going back some serious thought. You see, there was pretty steep drop off, maybe 20 ft or so and in order to go any further, we had to get down this drop-off. Mind you, we did not have any gear for climbing mountains, matter of fact we did not have anything except maybe some wine and beer. What I was facing was a place where a tree was growing next to the cliff and the limbs stretched outward toward the hillside we stood upon, a limb that was skinny and not very long. The top of the tree was also skinny, not one of these statuesque ancient trees that gave one comfort climbing, no this was a feeble and limber sort of pine that had little to offer in terms of security, but that is what we had to use. I looked at this tree and grumbled, I have to jump over and try to catch that limb to get to the next level? Is there no other way around this I whined, and the more adventurous young ones told me, this is it, you have to jump over to this tree to get down there. I was growing even more disillusioned, why had agreed to go on this “trip”. Most of the group of youngsters were all smaller than me, only one of them was actually heavier in weight, and his motto for life was “no fear”. I did not want to jump, I had this horrible fear that I would break the limb, or the tree would sway and propel me to the ground like giant sling shot. But everyone else had already jumped, leaving me totally alone on the edge of this cliff, nothing left but to take my leap of faith. I went for it, and made the connection, then I shimmed down to the ground. It was no fun, even knowing I had accomplished this wreckless endeavor gave me little joy, for I immediately began to wonder how the hell we would ever get out of here. But the group continued onward, and there was no turning back now, I was in for good, regrets or not, I was with them.
I don’t recall how much longer we hiked that evening, but there were several more little glitches to cross before we got to the place that Glenn continued to reassure us, “we will never regret this once we see where we are”. You must remember we are in the dark and have a little light provided by the dim flashlights.
Upon finally getting to our camping destination, the cave was cold and moreover, the dampness was just too much. The guys made a fire, but the cold night air and the water falling beyond the opening of the cave just added even more cold to what was already becoming an unbearably miserable evening. I suppose it was around 1:00 am when we finally arrived at the camping spot. I was beyond regretful. It was cold, damp, the fire would not even come close to allowing warmth, unless you sat in the fire. We were running low on “refreshments” which meant sobering up. The one redeeming decision that I had made before I embarked upon this crazy venture, was that I was wearing an incredibly versatile outer garment. I had received this garment from an old friend of mine and if he had not given it to me, one that I would have never bought for myself. This garment kept me dry, warm and was very lightweight, so never confining, if I could purchase one like it again, believe me I would. This jacket was the only thing that was working for me that evening. I moved around the fire all night, trying to figure out where the most warmth was and I never found it. Around 4am three of our group got so disgusted with it all, they gathered up all of their gear (they actually had some quilts and pillows) their guitar and with no flashlights, took off, grumbling this was the worst place they had ever been and whatever it took they were going home. I was concerned with the impetuous decision they were making, but they would hear no one’s offering of warnings, they just crumpled their belongings together and stumbled off. We all spoke about this, each of us concerned and yet, not much we could do to stop them. I recall one or more of us, saying “they will be back, they will never figure their way out of here”. All I could think about, was how the heck were they going to shimmy up that tree with all of that stuff. They certainly did not bring it down the tree, they dropped it down. Anyway, we had lost three of our members. I laid there most of the night awake, nothing about this trip seemed to make sense and the more sober I became, the less sense it made.
The Consciousness….my gift of the now.
As the sun began to rise and daylight became more apparent, we each began to wake up. It was still cold, but the water that I thought had been rain all night suddenly revealed itself to me. In the daylight, I was suddenly able to see where I was. The group leader, Glenn, told us to walk outside of the cave, and reluctantly I did. I was struck with total awe. Amazed at the sight, I was inside a waterfall that was standing at least 50 foot (or more) above the water below. We were inside one of the many caves that flank one of the most beautiful sites on the Buffalo River. It was incredible. The cave that we spent the night inside suddenly to my surprise was one of the openings that lay behind the exquisite waterfall that flowed down the magnificent Buffalo River. I had canoed the Buffalo in days gone by, I knew how pretty it could be from that vantage point, but never had I dreamed of seeing the world from inside the falls. Suddenly my remorse for being there turned to a state of presence that only comes when we let go of our own selves and enter that place of oneness with our creator. I will always cherish that event, and my only regret, is that I did not do photography back in those days. I only have my vivid imagination to rely upon. It is a good place to go in my head, and I am grateful.
The photo is not one of mine, but this gives you a sense of where we were camping. It was pure glory. I must confess; if I could escaped, I would not have experienced this. I got trapped and in spite of myself and my own “self-consciousness” I was given this gift.
I wonder about gifts like this one, most of the joyful times of my life have not been so much a part of some material set of circumstances, not at all. Most of the true joys in my life have come from my own inner pain. I got to a place that was so painful that I had to do something different. I was guided then, after truly surrendering to the powerful universe, to a space that is inside me. Maybe the cave is something of a metaphor for that type of experience. I never saw it that way back then. I just went along for the fun of it. But looking back and knowing what I know today, that cave is like my life has unfolded. I am standing in the light today and enjoying what life offers to me.
A few of notes regarding the story.
1. The three that stormed out of the cave that evening? They came back in about an hour. They had wandered around in the darkness for a while, got lost and fortunately (their words) were able to find their way back to us. They settled in for the evening and made the best of it.
2. The trip back the next day? Well, to my utter surprise, there is another way to get there and that is the way we returned. We did not have to climb that tree to go back. I still don’t know why we had to take the tree route going there, I asked that question (of course) but never got a suitable answer or I don’t recall it, if I did.
Oh the last leg of that journey?
this is what we saw the next day near where we had camped. I am not certain this is the exact place, but I guarantee it is extremely similar. It was unbelievable.
4. I always wanted to go back, but I never did, I never found the site where we parked. It was late, and I was just along for the ride.