Sunday, August 26, 2012

A good ol' fashioned rant

I recently undertook an extended solo backtracking trip, in the Pasayten Wilderness of Washington.  My purposes were explicit; I wanted a spiritual connection with the land, the land of my birth, the land of mountains that I fell in love with as a child and grew me into an ardent lover of the more-than-human world.

My packing preparations were obsessively detailed, down to the amount of grams of fat I would be ingesting each day.  I had to keep weight to an absolute minimum. However, I prioritized   special items to aid me in my quest of land-communion, including an elk-skin shamanic drum that i had made for just this occasion.  Among the relatively few items that survived the cuts were my smoking supplies.  An herbal smoking mix with rolling papers, along with a small quantity of marijuana, and a plastic butane lighter.  Again, I saw these items as part of my tool kit for connecting with the spirits of the trees and rocks and skies.  I was self-consciously styling myself in the shamanic tradition, replete with drum and ceremonial smokes.

Now then, let’s play a little game.  Let’s say that the night I spent on top of Tatoosh Buttes had played out a little differently.  As it was, it was something of a trial.  I passed the night rolled inside my tarp, warm and dry but cramped and miserable, as the rain and wind struck a deafeningly discordant beat on my plastic shelter.  I maintained an exhausted vigilance for the first note of thunder, determined to roust myself upon the report and hustle my ass down the mountain, off of the exposed butte.  Getting back to our game, let’s say the thunder had indeed rolled, and the lightning struck me as I tried to descend the mountain.  Struck me dead, so that I tumbled off of the trail and came to rest out of sight of other hikers.

A season passes, my flesh is consumed by scavengers and microbes.  A few more seasons pass, my clothes decay.  A few dozen more, my backpack and sleeping bag are blown to the wind in tatters, mostly photodegraded by UV radiation.  Spin the clock forward one hundred, two hundred, three hundred years, and what is left?  The Tatoosh Buttes are as glorious as ever, the mountains are my sacred resting place, but what the heck is that damned plastic lighter still doing here?

Paradigm shift.  Take a simple, unquestioned “this is the way it is” aspect of daily life.  Strip away our cultural filter, the filter that has told us “this is the way it is” every day of our lives.  Take a look at that plastic butane lighter.  What is it made of? Petroleum by-products, hydrocarbons, the harvest of the energy of 100 million years ago.  You know, the finite resource that leads America to spend billions of dollars on a military presence in the Middle East.  Lighters don’t grow on trees, you know.  We know where lighters come from, we know all about the costs of hydrocarbons, geopolitical economic and environmental.  And we know where they go when we toss them out the window, on the ground, into the weeds, even on rare occasion into a trashcan and eventually to an anaerobic landfill.  WHerever they end up, the decomposers of our world have no use for them, so they remain, mankind’s durable gift to the world.

Why do we use lighters?  Do we have an alternative? Of course we do, and it does happen to grow on trees, or even better, most matchbooks that you’d pick up in a bar consist of cardboard matchsticks, which is just recycled paper scraps.  Are lighters cheaper than a matchbook? No...  So why do we all use them, tree-hugging potheads and off-roading rednecks alike?

How much inconvenience would it be to never consume another lighter? How much inconvenience would it be to get your matches free, from a bar.  To light up, and then toss a little shred of recycled scrap that will be eaten up by decomposers.  To enjoy the ultimate convenience, Fire Made Easy, without participating in the losing battle of Mand & Hydrocarbon.

Go for it.  Storm the moral high ground.  Shock your friends.  Do the paradigm shift.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Part IV: Strawberry Milk, Sliced White Bread and a .357 Magnum

When last we were seen, deep in the jungle primeval (not an exageration: the Khao Sok rainforest has been a stable ecosystem for about 150 million years. Woah!), a great drama had reached a climax.  Group unity hung in the balance, dependent on the response of our brave yet somewhat foolhardy leaders.

(The end of Part III follows)
Reinhold and Boone emerged from the jungle, moving purposefully.  I said we had to stop, and talk.

"Yes of course, let us talk, but we will keep pushing forward in a northerly direction as we speak"

"NO!"  "NO!"

My girlfriend and I spoke as one, even if it sounded like two separate utterances.  The line had been drawn in the moist shallow jungle soil, even if our leaders did not know it.  Would they stop and hear us? Or would they press onwards, pursuing the phantom trail that was always just ahead, that would either take us home or take us to hell.

We spoke.  They listened.  We were respectful, we did not attack them or call them names.  Instead, we pointed out that group collaboration required group communication.  When Reinhold dropped into a drainage, we wanted to know why.  When he veered off course, we wanted to know on what bearing.  When Reinhold made a decision, we wanted to know what inputs were going through his head.  The problem was not that Reinhold was changing his mind, or changing direction, or following a new route.  The problem was that we did not know why; we did not know what information he was basing the decision on.

So we impressed upon them the importance of staying within speaking distance, of keeping everyone notified of our bearing (what direction we were traveling on a compass), and of frequent group huddles.  We also laid out the pitfalls of assumptions.  When one is lost in the woods, one must make decisions based on information that is something less than solid gold.  You must assume that a drainage leads to a body of water, or that you are on one side of a divide, or that someone is looking for you.  It is ok to assume; otherwise you would be paralyzed for lack of decision-making information.  But, of paramount importance, you must acknowledge and remember your assumptions.

Why?  Because let us say you assume that a logging road will lead you to the lake.  And you follow that logging road towards the lake.  Somewhere along the way, the assumption is forgotten as such, and reclassified as a fact (human psychology is a beautiful thing).  When evidence begins to mount to the contrary, it is dismissed as not conforming to the "fact".  If the assumption, however, is indeed remembered as an assumption, then our minds have the opportunity to reassess it.  The contrary evidence has a much easier time overwhelming the assumption, and the group can make new assumptions.

Enough lecturing.  Back to the adventure!

Off we went, working as a group, heading vaguely South Southwest, towards the fabled flooded forest, which danced in our minds with its alluring known quality.  Survival is a combination of skill and luck. We had the skill to work together.  But we needed luck.  A trail would be helpful too.

We stumbled into a clearing.  All around us was open space, in contrast to the constant assault of in-your-face vines and trees.  Flattened earth beneath our feet, instead of the unstable tangle of roots and mud, fungus and leaf litter.  It was a massive stage, perhaps the size of a living room, terribly inviting and heartwarming.  A pheasant had created the clearing, dancing and stamping back the jungle over years of courtship.  Pretty damn cool.

But best of all, we had been there before.  Just the day before, in fact. We were in the realm of the known once again.  Huzzah!

We set off down a trail that clearly led into the clearing.  Disturbingly, Reinhold Boone Jacob and Mia all set off in the opposite direction, towards a different trail that led into the clearing.  I had a crystal clear memory of entering the clearing via the trail I was moving towards.  So did my girlfriend. The other four had equally strong memories of entering via the other trail.  So much for the veracity of memory.

Four outvotes two.  The group moved forward.  My doubt was almost immediately quelled, as we began to encounter familiar, unmistakeable signs.  Fresh knife cuts in the trees.  Particularly charismatic dipterocarps.  Fungus of the extremely weird persuasion.  We had found our trail!

Onwards, onwards, onwards, towards the great flooded forest.  A few more lucky strikes kept us on the trail following interruptions.  By early afternoon, we had reached it, and we felt mighty grand.  Once again, we relied upon collective memory to pick up our trail.  Reinhold was utterly befuddled by this area, while the rest of us remembered bits and pieces.  Together, we had the complete picture, and soon found the trail leading out, back towards the karst.

The afternoon wore on.  We reached a truly massive fallen jungle giant, as wide as I am tall.  It was our lunch log from the first day. We clambered upon its girth and sat down to a brief respite and a small snack.  We had many challenges ahead. 

The karst was close, but there was a particularly tricky section of swamp in between, treacherous to cross, with sucking mud and tearing thorns.  Navigation had been accomplished by moving from the biggest tree in sight to the next biggest tree in sight.  The karst was even more treacherous.  Steep, slippery and sharp, ascending and descending it under anything less than ideal conditions was a sketchy notion.  We faced the prospect of traversing it in the twilight, after a rain (it had been raining heavily), and extremely exhausted.

Mia was on the verge of being a dangerous liability.  She was extremely dehydrated, consequently malnourished as well, and in terrible pain from an old climbing injury.  Every step she took was tempting a sprained ankle.  Climbing up the karst, and then down-climbing it, seemed impossible.

Although I had not yet shared my opinion, I was staunchly for spending a second night in the jungle, at the base of the karst.  I did not think it safe to attempt the final piece at the end of the day.  Never mind that we were not even there yet, with one more daunting section of poorly marked jungle to traverse.

Voices. Not jungle noises. Multiple voices. Loud voices. Thai voices.  A squad of Thai park rangers ambled out of the jungle on the trail in front of us.  They were in full battle gear, camouflage uniforms and backpacks and assault rifles.  Moments later, a second squad appeared from behind us.  Fourteen armed men now surrounded us. 

They were jubilant.  The rangers whipped out their digital cameras, rushed over to us, and had their buddies take pics of them smiling next to the filthy exhausted lost farangs (Thai word for gringo).  A loaf of white bread and individual cartons of strawberry milk were pressed upon us.  A bottle of rum appeared, but only circulated among the rangers.

The vibe was a little weird among our group.  Boone and Reinhold were not so happy to see the rangers.  For political reasons, as they were local business owners, it was not good that the park rangers were sent on a rescue mission.  It was also expensive; about 12,000 baht for the rescue effort, or $400. We still had to hump it over a daunting geological formation, we were still exhausted, and the sun had not stopped setting.

On the plus side, we didn't have to expend any more mental effort to find the way home.  And Mia had perked up admirably, after a dose of bottled water from the rangers.  Before setting off on the final stretch home, the rangers pulled out a special pistol, a .357 Magnum reserved for celebratory discharges, and blasted two shots into the thick jungle air.

Mia took off, quickly outdistancing us, and we did not see her again till we reached the pickup trucks.  The karsts were slowly, carefully negotiated, with a few close calls but no injuries.  As we clambered up and then down, hand over foot, I had ample opportunity to close inspect the footwear of the ranger just ahead or just behind me.  Remarkably, not a single one had standard issue footwear.  Sneakers, army boots, hiking boots, Wellington's, sandals, flip-flops, anything you could think of.  Not that it mattered.  Every one of them moved with confidence on the treacherous terrain, even with the additional handicap of having to use one hand to hold onto a large rifle.

We made it.  It felt anticlimatic. I'm not quite sure why.  Perhaps I was too exhausted to bother celebrating.  Or too pissed off.  Or perhaps the leaches had sucked out enough blood that I was undergoing an 18th century bleeding treatment, the sort that killed George Washington.

That's the story.  Lessons Learned will follow in Part V: Epilogue.  Hope you enjoyed it.