March 30, 2011

Off the Beaten Interstate

Photo: Jamie O'Donnell

A Lesson in Moving Mindfully

September, 2010

We paddle North up the lake in canoes, slowly leaving Washington State behind and heading toward Canada. My days are spent amongst strangers who are slowly but surely becoming friends – paddling, hiking, and traversing through the wilderness; today and for the next three months.

I’ve never climbed a mountain before. I’ve never been miles away from the nearest road before. I’ve never carried 50 lbs. on my back, and walked with it for miles, cooked meals over a tiny flame or slept inside a tent. Amongst the trees, flowers, dirt, mud, ice, and snow, I am far from everything I have grown accustomed to, but I’ve never felt more at home and at peace.

Photo: Brian North

On either side of me as I make my way along the trail there are lush green ferns and mosses, large wild mushrooms, and tall, proud trees. Eyes focused on the route before me, I see dirt and rocks forming a path that will lead me through the wilderness of Northern Washington. More often than not, I am staring up at a dauntingly steep incline, and I can’t help but wonder if this will be the one that finally bests me. But out here where it is deliciously quiet, it is more difficult to remain anxious than not. My heartbeat slows as it begins to accent my every inhalation, which starts to keep time with my footsteps.

Breathe in. Right foot in front of left, left in front of right. Breathe out.

If I didn’t experienced it firsthand, I still wouldn’t believe it existed. Each morning I wake up excited; I’m curious about what the day will bring and looking forward to what’s coming next. I feel happy about who I am, and exactly what I’m doing.

I’ve taken a lot of yoga classes in my day, enough to know that being “present” is a big deal. Hours spent in downward dog, or seated on a meditation cushion, thinking and thinking and thinking about how to quiet my mind. But out here in the backcountry, wherever I go, there I am.

Each step I take on the trail means something. It signifies I’m right here, right now. Everything I need for the next three months is right here in my pack, and it’s an incredible sensation to feel the entire weight of my life on my shoulders, knowing that I possess the strength to carry it. Part of that means cutting out some things I thought were important – cute clothes, text messages, The Real Housewives of Orange County, the internet …

I realize now that if I were to hold on to everything I’ve collected from my past and everything I’ve acquired in the present, I wouldn’t be able to take a single step forward. I feel euphoric knowing that for once, I feel connected with every breath I take, and for once I feel truly present.

January, 2011

Steering wheel. Interstate asphalt. Motel clerk. Motel room. Steering wheel. Interstate asphalt.

Each step that was once completely in synch with each breath has now been replaced by a foot pressed firmly, then lightly on the gas. Press, then release. These days my breath isn’t in tune with anything anymore. Instead, I’ve noticed each inhalation becoming shorter and more rapid – that is, when I’m noticing it at all. Maybe it’s all of the cars and noise, pollution, and pavement, but of late it is becoming more and more difficult to quiet my mind. I feel as though the sense of calm I had just a month ago is breaking  with each mile that registers on the odometer.

Photo: Brian North

December, 2010

I feel enveloped by love. After months spent with the same nine people and without showers, romance isn’t really a part of the equation. This took some getting used to for me – I’m not accustomed to such a level of intimacy with members of the opposite sex but without any kind of romantic attachment. And yet here I am, surrounded by a group of wonderful people who I am head over heels in love with, who I would do anything for. Hiking, cooking, sleeping, and watching the stars in complete isolation from society are a true lesson in love. I see now that having the freedom to sit with someone and simply talk (or not talk, as the case may be) without the nagging presence of cell phones or laptops or televisions, creates the possibility for true friendship and love to grow. Each night before I fall asleep I can’t help but reflect on how fortunate I am to be able to experience this level of friendship and family in such a raw form.

Photo: Keith 011764

February, 2011

My traveling companion and I are arguing. I’m tense, and he’s reacting to it. There’s a new distance between us, and instead of getting smaller, it’s growing with each state line we cross. I’m worried about jobs and houses, bills, and gas. He’s concerned with the way I’ve changed. I’m not the fun, carefree person I was just weeks before. Suddenly I realize I haven’t seen that person since New Jersey. Which, by the way, is a pretty lousy place to leave anything, especially your spirit.

That “love” I experienced in the wilderness is just barely a memory right now. At night in the dark motel, I try with all my might to recall every detail I can of that feeling. I just remember it felt warm and sweet and I felt safe and content, but I have just the memory now, and it lasts for barely a second before I have to start conjuring it up again. With each passing state, the memory of love becomes less and less vivid. I find myself worrying over my chipping nail polish, and the lack of pressure in the motel shower.

.     .     .

March, 2011

I’ve finally left the interstate and arrived at my destination – Boulder, Colorado. Here, hiking and yoga are once again a daily part of my life. I’ve taken up biking in an attempt to travel from point A to point B in a way that’s more mindful, the way I did in the back country; a way of focusing on the period of transition as much as the destination.

For whatever reasons, I wasn’t able to hold onto my state of mindful peace as I made my way across the country by car. Things have returned more or less to the way they were before my journey into the backcountry. There is one important difference, however, which is that I now know that it truly is possible to feel entirely content, and to simply be. So, I will continue to strive to return to that state of mindful presence, and do whatever it takes to get back there.


Sasha Aronson has a degree in Literature from Colby College. She worked for publishers in the Big Apple, but prefers living mindfully and adventurously in Boulder, Colorado.

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