One January morning 12 years ago in Los Angeles, I was driving to the dump in a pickup truck with a friend, depressed. My rowdy friend was weary of my malaise. In between throwing emptied beer cans out the window, he suggested that rather than continue wallowing in suffering, that we might instead celebrate the fact that we were still alive and free to move around. “Don’t be such a chickenshit,” he said.”
Curious to experiment with this novel approach to my persistent blues, I suggested a trip to the Kelso Dunes.
The Kelso Dunes are one of seven North American dune fields that produce “booming dunes.” The cascades of sand that walkers dislodge set off vibrations that sound like low-flying planes, and feel like standing front and center at a Sunn O))) show. We began our ascent after dark under a waning gibbous moon, our heads percolating with fifth kingdom remedies. Six hundred feet of elevation gain in shifting sand and howling wind took us around two hours. We descended in a fraction of the time, hooting and hollering as we tumbled down the dune’s face. A cold night sleeping in the open desert under a sky rippling with shades of deep purple followed.
Adopting this approach to depression – staying mobile in spite of anxiety and unpleasant thoughts – has been a life-changing practice. Embracing impermanence and indulging in the fullness of the present moment didn’t solve any of my problems, and it led to a cold night sleeping in the open desert. Six months later it meant leaving my life as a writer in Los Angeles to become a medic with Marfa EMS in a remote region of Far West Texas. After a few wild years in the Big Bend, the path led to residential practice at the Indianapolis Zen Center, and now to a rich and comparatively quiet existence, happily married in East Central Indiana. I’m still depressed sometimes, but I’m better at taking care of the depression, and not seeing it as a barrier to life.
I wouldn’t have talked about it this way at the time, but in hindsight these photos remind me of one of my favorite Alan Watts lines, from The Spirit of Zen (1936): The freedom and poverty of Zen is to leave everything and “Walk on,” for this is what life itself does, and Zen is the religion of life.
Arrived in Lihue, Kaua’i from LAX around 10pm. Rented my car and drove through light rain down the two-lane roads splitting Wailua, Kapa’a and other small towns down the middle. Air smells like wet floppy plants and dirt. This is my first trip to the tropics, so I think it smells like a swamp. Like the North American almost-tropics of the Everglades and the Atchafalaya bayous. I crank the defrosters and turn the local contemporary reggae station up for an irie version of The Cars’ “Drive.” Tuning around to a hippie New Age broadcast where a spaced-out lady DJ talks about all the bad vibes on the mainland, and how Kaua’i has to radiate more positivity or something. Then she plays some trance music so it’s over to another reggae station.
The first time I walked up Mt. Islip — an 8,000 foot peak in the San Gabriel Mountains, about 50 miles from my house in Northeast Los Angeles — I came down by moonlight sort of by accident. I tend to get a late start on a lot of my hikes, mostly because I enjoy weekend mornings zoning out on my porch listening to Francoise Hardy, drinking a cherry-walnut smoothie and watching my cat Spider run around in the yard.
The trail is an easy three or four miles one way, and I arrived at the top just as the sun was starting to set, barely making out the towers of downtown Los Angels through the orange haze. I hung around on the peak — bald rock with four chunks of cinder block, the foundation of a long-gone fire watchtower from the 1930s — until the light was mostly gone. It wasn’t until I was making my way down in the dusk when it occurred to me that the woods were still crawling with hunters. It was the heart of deer season, November 5, 2006, and the Islip Saddle parking lot had been full of pickup trucks and camo-sporting Latino dudes hanging out with their freshly-killed deer carcasses rather than the usual crowd of white granola-types and their Subaru Outbacks.
The moon came up over the mountains about an hour after dark, illuminating every crooked branch of the trees on the fire-scarred ridgeline above me. It glowed and sparkled silver on the rock that sloped up from the fire road I was walking, and it shined in the arc of pee that I sent running down the closed, two-lane blacktop highway that I’d followed to the trailhead. (The Angeles Crest Highway has been closed with a heavy gate at mile 64.1 for months now, I think because of some rockslides further east.) I was singing a jolly country song about a guy who killed a woman in Tennessee and was now running for the Mexico border when I realized that two hunters, sitting by the side of the road, had been watching me from a distance as I ambled along, dancing and urinating gratuitously in the middle of the road. Yeesh. “Buenas noches, cazadores,” I said, remembering the word for “hunters” from a tequila bottle. “Uh-huh,” they replied, understandably unimpressed. They asked me if I’d seen their friend, who was long overdue at the parking lot. I told them I hadn’t seen anyone, and walked on.