It began with thickets and brambles. I was mired neck-deep in a conclave of every manner of growing thing possessive of sharp, pointed, prickly, skin-penetrating armor. I was hacking a path to nowhere with a partly rusted machete, swearing, sweltering in the mid-day sun, growing increasingly angry at the steady rain of recently hacked-in-two, thorn-laden vines that seemed bound and determined to fall down on top of me. I was way behind schedule. My arms were scratched and bruised. My forearms in particular were indistinguishable from an ice rink with two broken Zambonis after a week of college hockey.
Coming to the woods was supposed to be fun- a time of relaxation, a way to find myself. The fantasy I’d had in the morning about blissful trekking and wildlife encounters had rapidly degenerated into the lowest possible grade of wilderness experience possible: incessant, belligerent flailing in order to produce ground speeds of about a quarter of a mile and hour. All I was doing was berating both Nature and myself. I don’t know why I thought there was supposed to be some kind of easy hike through this little valley. I thought the trees were so massive the canopy would keep the weeds down, but some relatively recent logging to the south had resulted in a pioneering free-for-all in this particular corridor. Just my luck to pick this spot to enter the valley.
After several blustery hours, I finally broke through the wall, and made my way up the slopes beneath some towering pines. Exhausted, I found a rock in the sun and decided to soak up what enjoyment remained of the day from that location. I sat and watched the sun go by for a few minutes, then got antsy again and started exploring. I found a makeshift cave underneath a tumble of man-size boulders and marked the spot for next time, then gave up and began my trek back to civilization. I was thinking about dinner, my unpaid bills, and what to get my brother for Christmas before I was even back down the slope to the site of my massacre.
* * * * *
I was certain I would come back soon, but nearly a year went by before I came back. I had completely forgotten about the cave. Autumn’s progression had knocked back the weeds, and progress was relatively easy. I bounced on a fresh bed of pine needles, and rejoiced in my rediscovery of the rocky enclave. I committed to coming back again the next weekend for an overnight…
* * * * *
It was supposed to be a beautiful experience, myself in the wild beneath a sky full of stars. Instead, clouds came in and out, periodically dowsing the heavens, and the moon was so past it practically toppled over the horizon after the sun. My glorious vision didn’t exactly materialize, and I found myself once again uneasily alone with myself. I clambered over rocks and tried to find a better vantage point to watch the valley. I found a decent place to sit and made my mind up to pray and meditate for a really long time, until my mind stopped its numbing chatter, but gave up after probably ten minutes. Scampering back down, I banged my knee in the dark and limped to the tent, where I gave up.
For just a moment then, I exhaled and let things be as they were. I just flopped onto the ground and lay on my back. A graceful breeze skirted through the trees. It felt as though the valley and I had just whispered to each other. The moment just happened. It snuck up on me.
I tried to recreate that experience for the rest of the night, to no avail.
* * * * *
I came back often to this spot, and made it my own. It became familiar, a friend. I learned to just let my feelings soak into the stone and earth, and I began to seek out stretches of prolonged solitude in that spot. The sound of the wind rushing down the valley had become a language I imagined I could understand, and I felt periodically that I could sense when the weather was changing in the valley.
I kept a journal and a few knick-knacks tucked underneath some stones inside of the makeshift cave. I wrote in the journal often- sometimes letters to myself, sometimes poems, sometimes just aimless rambling about life.
* * * * *
The first time I saw Him I was annoyed. I had come to rely upon the anonymity and solitude of this place, and when I saw His figure off in the distance, sliding along between the trees just at dusk, it was as if something special had been ruined. I left my journal underneath the ground for the entire visit. I had nothing to say.
I didn’t see Him again that time, but the discovery of another person hiking around that spot was like a loud cymbal repeatedly crashing in my mind. I couldn’t get away from it. I kept looking over my shoulder, wondering…
Later, back in my apartment, I was struck by things I didn’t notice that night. I’d seen Him just after sunset, and He hadn’t had a pack, and my spot was pretty far from the nearest road. He had moved with an effortless grace, as if He and the land were intimately interwoven into one another. He had literally faded into the night. I began to wonder if I would see Him again…
* * * * *
I don’t know why I decided to go climbing. Usually when I’m by myself, I just hike and explore, but the rock face was only about thirty-five feet tall and it looked like an easy ascent. Near the top, my right foot slipped off an inch-wide crack in the rock and I slid down along the face nearly three feet. I caught myself with my left hand, and flung my right up wildly onto the same indention in the stone, but my legs were hanging over an inversion in the weathered stone and couldn’t find purchase. I could pull myself up, but without my legs I didn’t have the strength in one arm to hold myself while I fished around with the other to find another grip. I was stuck.
My arms were beginning to wobble and burn.
His voice was calm as water. He lowered a rope down from the top. I grabbed hold and adrenaline scoured my veins as I scampered up the last few feet and onto the top.
I was shaken, out of breath, and completely embarrassed, nearly to the point of being angry, but He just tossed me his canteen- his only possession apparently- like we did this kind of thing all the time and sat down. He asked me if I’d ever been to the watchtower, and I told Him I hadn’t. He said I should check it out sometime, especially since I liked to climb. How He could encourage me to climb after the stunt I just pulled was beyond me.
I asked Him if He lived up here, on this land. He said here, and places like it- any place where he could help people. I wondered how He knew I would need help today, and as if He had read my mind He said He could always feel when people were in trouble. He said looking inside yourself takes a lot of courage, and He said it was His gift to know when that kind of thing was happening. He said He was a guide, and would always be there when help was needed.
Somehow I didn’t feel the need to question Him.
* * * * *
I awoke one night and looked out from my shelter. Wind was lashing through the valley, driving rain before it, and the boughs of the trees were swinging deeply to and fro in aperiodic rhythms. Periodically lightning ripped through the sky. In one such moment I saw Him crouched down in a small clearing, motionless, staring down a bear. The bear was clawing at the earth and growling, swinging one paw at the empty space between them, demanding the space for its own.
He never moved.
The bear rose up on two legs and bellowed, fell back down towards Him, but He remained motionless. The bear came no closer, just sauntered back and forth, agitated, flinging soil and stone with his great paws.
I looked at the bear, and realized it was there because of me. It had come for me. I realized in a flash that I was afraid, that I had always been afraid, and that my fear was drawing the bear straight to me. It was as if the bear was answering my call. I felt an odd connection and gratitude to the bear, for responding to my call and fulfilling its purpose, even as I knew the bear would destroy me. I felt something else also, and even as some sick, hollow part of myself wanted to be annihilated, another part of me did not.
I looked again to Him, and realized He had also answered my other call. I saw He was armed with a Truth I could scarcely comprehend. It was a Truth with which the bear could not argue. It was a Power I remembered, but hadn’t experienced in a very, very long time. I remembered it in that part of me that did not want to be destroyed. He was battling for that part… I realized no power I could ever invent could match that One, that even though I knew it and had it in me, it did not come from me.
* * * * *
I learned to let my fears dissolve, slowly, over time, and I began to take longer and longer hikes into the wilderness. Sometimes I saw Him, miles and miles deep in the forest, and we talked. I asked Him if he thought I could live up here, up in the mountains, and He told me I’d be able to live anywhere once I was free. He told me again about the watchtower. He said when I found it, I’d have to make the choice to climb it. He couldn’t do that part for me.
* * * * *
One day I came upon the wooden legs of the watch tower in a dead-end canyon and I gasped. Rocky walls rose nearly two hundred feet on three sides, and the legs were nearly forty feet apart at the bottom. Braces bound one to the next in a tapered structure that stretched up to a small shack high above the canyon floor. Ancient timbers were nailed together, and an awkward ladder ran up one of the legs.
I began to climb.
I felt Him with me, like He was right beside me, but each rung was a deliberate choice I had to make to climb up. Halfway up I was trembling and tired, and yet some deeper, underlying force was coming unstuck inside of me at the same time. I was giving up fatigue, and trading it for strength. The rungs were just tacked to the wooden post, and it seemed like any moment one could tear free and I would plunge down to the ground below.
I was immersed in two feelings- the palpable presence of fear and the growing recognition of unqualified Safety. Focusing on a newfound sense of inevitability, I continued up the structure. At the top, inside of the shack, I could see for miles in all directions in a way I’d never seen before. I was above the trees for the first time. I realized to my delight that the landscape was dotted with watchtowers as far as I could see, and I realized I was not alone- had never been alone. I saw towers everywhere, dotting the forest, and as night fell they each lit up, along with mine. Stars twinkled overhead.
I recognized that this was the moment I had always sought. All of my coming to the forest, even in my earliest days with the machete, had been pursuit of this Recognition, this Moment, this Peace.
In each light I saw in the forest, each watchtower, I felt His presence, and my Own. I no longer wanted to be alone, by myself. I wanted to find these other watchtowers, to meet their inhabitants, even as I felt as if I had always known them. I realized this was only one valley in these mountains, and that I could just make out the twinkling lights of the next valley, and that there was another valley after that, and another, and that this went on forever, in all directions, without end… I realized the world was far vaster than I had dared imagine, and also more available and more beautiful…
I began to cry, and as I did I imagined Him moving down below in the trees, through the darkness, nurturing this endless community of souls. I saw a process that could never end, of Hearts coming to light, finding one another, and uniting…