A mother and son’s enlightening travels across the “great, big, broad land ’way up yonder”
Part 2: Travelling Liam-style: Way up north and deep down inside
The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness – John Muir
The title of this post might be somewhat misleading. To be truthful, I’m talking about my “enlightenments” over the course of my three-week vacation with my son, Liam, as we road-tripped, camped and hiked across the Yukon and northwestern British Columbia. But Liam provided the fundament for this narrative.
His enlightenment, or awakening as he called it, began earlier, before I met up with him in Whitehorse, Yukon, manifesting over the preceding six months since he’d quit his conservation job, loaded up his truck, and headed west from Ontario to experience splendor sine occasu. Translated, British Columbia’s Latin motto, “splendor without diminishment”, lives up to its claim as Liam has validated, and against the backdrop of this splendor, he explained how he came to know his existence is intrinsic to the whole, and that whole—The Universe, to use his term—always has your back (my words). There’s much more to his evolution, and that’s his story to tell someday. But it is the foundation my narrative builds on.
I want to be clear, however, on one important thing at the get-go. These two quotes say it nicely:
Seek not to climb to mountain’s top; Nor sail the oceans wide
For Paradise’s happy glade; Is waiting deep inside –John McLeod
The only Zen you can find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there – Robert Pirsig
Self-actualization, personal growth, awareness, wakefulness, aliveness, enlightenment—whatever you chose to call that which makes life brilliant—isn’t out there somewhere on a mountain top or in an ashram waiting for us to track it down. It is, in fact, “waiting deep inside”. And, happily, as Leonard Cohen sings “there is a crack in everything”—including you and me—which is “how the light gets in.” It’s life’s ongoing experiences that open that crack, wider and wider, letting in more and more light to illuminate what’s waiting inside. Sometimes we intentionally create our experiences, like drinking in an intoxicating mountain-top view after a grueling climb, or feeling a deep peace while meditating in an ashram; but sometimes unwelcomed life experiences are foisted upon us, like a painful loss of love, wealth or health. Always, though, whether invited or imposed, we can choose to welcome our cracking open and peer inside.
With that caveat, I continue my story of cracking open.
In unanticipated ways, this travel experience expanded and enriched me. Sensorially, it provided shape to amorphous thoughts and beliefs I’ve long held.
Here’s what Up North made clearer to me:
- I’m at once impermanent and insignificant, enduring and invaluable;
- going only part of the way is okay;
- simplicity is not simple, but it is vital; and
- living in alignment with our core values is the only way to create meaning, purpose and happiness.
And this is how:
I’m at once impermanent and insignificant, enduring and invaluable
My impermanence and insignificance were made abundantly clear when I stood on a mountain crest along the Top of the World highway in the Yukon; I could see about 100 miles in every direction across the tops of ancient, well-worn mountains composed of sediments pushed up from an even older, primordial sea bed. In this landscape, I am nothing, egoless, a mote existing for an un-registerable short period of geological time. My existence is of no consequence in this timeless vastness. This is the reality, undeniable.
But it wasn’t a harsh or disturbing truth. While standing there, I felt exhilarated and comforted, understanding I am an intrinsic part of something so immense and lasting.
When I shifted my focus from the distant horizon to the plants clinging tightly to the rocks at my feet, I knew that just as the varied plants in the tundra biome are invaluable, so am I. My life has meaning and purpose. In this treeless, polar desert, plants mean life or death to fauna and other flora in their fragile ecosystem. Their purpose is to do their unique part to sustain life that continues beyond their own. They endure, perpetrating the annual cycle of life, death and new life.
I am unique. I am enduring. I continuously contribute to the lives of others in my sphere of influence, knowingly and unknowingly, intentionally and unintentionally, slightly and profoundly, and my impact will live on after me in those people shaped a little or a lot by my being and doing.
Going only part of the way is okay
When accepting Liam’s invitation to join him in the Yukon, I knew there would be no way I could keep up with his long-distance hiking up and down mountains. My 65 years and nagging knee were no match for his 31 years and buff physique, never mind his six-month warmup hiking across BC. While excitedly anticipating my vacation, I was also experiencing a sense of not-enoughness—not young enough, not physically robust enough, not good enough. But out on the trails, I was soon reminded of how nonsensical that thinking is. Always. Everywhere.
One of our first hikes, on the Samuel Glacier trail, was through a long and wide, starkly beautiful, treeless valley traversed by numerous small watercourses and one large creek that required us to cross barefoot in shin-deep, glacial-cold water. We hummock-hopped across an expansive bog that took us close to the snout of the glacier, climbed a hilltop to drier ground, and that’s as far as I went.
Along the way, I’d appreciated Liam’s encouraging “you can do it, Mom” and his challenges to “go a little further”. But at that point I knew that a 21 km (13 mile) round trip was enough for me and an act of self-love was in order. I parked myself on a rock (as bear bait, I teased, being deep in grizzly country) and watched him disappear into the distance, bounding mountain-goat-like across more alpine meadows to get a closer view of the glaciers.
As I sat in the solitude with the sun warm on my back, absorbing the beauty of my surroundings (and keeping a wary eye out for bears) I was happy to notice I wasn’t disappointed in myself for not going “all the way”—all Liam’s way that is. I was thinking how great it is to keep company with people who encourage you and challenge you to actualize your potential, but, in the end, how far and where you go must solely be your own call.
“You can’t live someone else’s expectations in life. It’s a recipe for disaster” – Bear Grylls
(For the record, Liam was unfailingly accommodating of my physical abilities, greatly dumbing down his normal hiking pace.)
Simplicity is not simple, but it is vital
If you’ve read Part 1 of this story, you’ll know what I’m talking about when I use the word “simplicity”; I’d actually described our vacationing as “rudimentary”. “Minimalistic” would also work. In a nutshell, Liam and I tailgate-camped out of the back of his pickup truck for three weeks (with a few exceptions). I slept under the cap; he slept on the ground. We ate one-pot, mostly vegan meals, and used minimal water for cooking and washing. Our home-base was most often one or another of the many beautifully simple and simply beautiful Yukon Territorial Campgrounds that provided a privy, picnic table, firewood and fire pit. No electricity. No potable water. Restorative, solid sleeps.
I’ve done tent-camping for decades, but this was the simplest, back-to-basics living that I’ve had the privilege of experiencing. At the time of our vacation, this had already been Liam’s lifestyle for six months as he wandered about British Columbia. But his minimalistic life style didn’t begin there. Prior to hitting the road and heading west, Liam had lived in a micro home, which I talk about in my blog post: An eight by 12 four-bit room: two stories of living minimalistically. He’s been my inspiration for low-carbon-footprint living for some time now.
Interestingly, the impact of my vacation was for me to feel disdain upon returning to my “extravagant” lifestyle back in southern Ontario, Canada, in my 2400 square foot, single family, fossil-fuel-heated home on an acre of country land with mown lawns. I’ve been trying to talk myself into believing I’m doing a good bit to reduce my environmental impact. After all, three family units share my home instead of us occupying three separate dwellings; I make use of passive solar heat as much as possible; I hang my washing on the line to dry when weather permits; I planted a large bee and butterfly garden; I’m drinking more oat milk and less dairy milk; almost exclusively, I buy used clothing.
The self back-patting needs to stop. This isn’t enough. Not nearly enough. My Liam-style vacation made me acutely aware of this. Compared to my norm, over most of the three weeks in the north I was living in a very environmentally conscientious way, eschewing the conveniences we in the Affluent World have come to see as necessities. But even our rudimentary vacationing style involved travelling thousands of miles in the truck using fossil fuel power. I bought water in plastic jugs (although we did continuously refill the two jugs). I flew both ways between Ontario and the Yukon. We used devices and technology to know where we were on our hiking trails and on the highways, to take and send pictures, and to do research for our next day’s adventure.
Living simply isn’t simple. But it’s vital.
Everywhere in the great northwest a visitor’s first impression could easily be that humanity is totally inconsequential in this vast, stunningly beautiful, natural environment. (Yukon’s population density is 1 person per 42 square kilometres, or per 16 square miles, outside of the capital city, Whitehorse.) Upon closer look, however, there is abundant evidence of human-exacerbated, accelerated global warming: mighty rivers suddenly changing course; glacier snouts retreating up the mountain sides; ubiquitous road works necessitated by melting permafrost; an unprecedented heat wave that preceded our arrival.
Further to my up-close-and-personal interaction with this mighty yet fragile land that “beckons and beckons” (Robert W. Service), I know it is beckoning—pleading with—humanity to do better.
“Simplicity boils down to two steps:
Identify the essential.
Eliminate the rest.”
– Leo Babauta, Zen Habits blogger
Living in alignment with our core values is the only way to create meaning, purpose and happiness
Liam is passionate about glaciers. When he headed out to travel the world (albeit a pandemic-constricted locked-down world), his desire was to experience the natural wonders of the planet before they’re further diminished or gone. I’m passionate about family and the environment. When I headed west to join him in a wander about the Yukon and northwestern British Columbia, my desire was to share a nature-immersion experience with a loved-one.
We were both strongly motivated by our core values. The word “core” has the Proto-Indo-European root meaning “heart.” It refers to the inmost part of anything. When you’re doing that which makes your heart sing—when you’re in alignment with your core values—you feel sustainably energized, empowered, excited, enthused, and very happy. You’re in flow with life, living in the moment, swept along in joy. Concern, anxiety, worry, the past, and the future are sidelined. What you’re doing has great meaning to you.
The following quote is commonly attributed to Pablo Picasso:
“The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.”
Liam finds meaning—his gift—in his insatiable wonder of, and photographic capture of, the natural environment. His gift becomes purpose as he shares his images on social media (Instagram and Facebook) with the aim of bringing nature’s beauty to viewers, fostering love and appreciation of the natural environment. I find meaning in writing and story-telling. I feel purposeful in sharing my thoughts and experiences to promote personal wellness as a prerequisite to global wellness.
I’m overflowing with gratitude to have had this humbling, enlightening, natural environment experience. Going “Way Up North”, to its bio-fragile tundra and to its bio-rich temperate rainforests, compelled me to go deep down inside. Still in the glow of the north’s loving, welcoming embrace, the words of Max Ehrmann in his 1927 poem “Desiderata” come to mind: “You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.”
Yes, I do have that right, but with that privilege comes life or death responsibility. Of the 8.7 million species of plants and animals that exist on earth, I belong to the one and only species that is capable of arrogantly destroying all the others and hence itself, or humbly finding its way back to a sustainable, harmonious coexistence.
May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view – Edward Abbey