It was excellent. Although the location, hikes and night star gazing were more exciting last year, the group satsung was far more interesting this year.
Dave met us in the parking lot. Girish and Dave decided to stay back and wait for Sally who was supposed to meet us there later.
The hike to the base camp from the parking lot was done partially in dusk and other half in night. It was nice. In the beginning, as the sun had already set, there was diffused light in the woods, and we could see most of the surroundings. As it grew darker, we could get a perception of our shadows on the ground from the pale light but no actual outlines.
The atmosphere, the trees and rocks had cool and quiet effect as we continued up the trail. This was the first time I had trekked in the dusk. Prapanna met us at the first edge of the lake. He had a bon fire lit. The first batch then went around the lake to the base camp. The hot chamomile tea that Celeste had waiting for us over the camp fire was a welcome sight.
Bindi from SASP also was there with the group. She was too excited and could not help herself and whined a lot.
The bon fires were a nice gathering place. No mosquitoes, practically no bugs. But, not much other wildlife either...
After the pitching of tents we met around the fire, before we retired for the Saturday night. Dave, Marta, Celest and Vishnu bhai had prepared a small gift package for every one. A nice painted cloth bag containing small booklets with writing from The Mother and Sri Aurobindo that we were going to follow in the group. There was a picture of The Mother & Sri Aurobindo. A small incense stick packets. A small toothpaste.
Girish and I decided to follow Prapanna and Vishnubhai and slept under the open sky. (I was cold, and next time will get a more thicker sleeping bag and thicker ground pad. But sleeping under open sky is OK) Slowly people retired to their tent. The night sky was diamond studded with stars. I lay down cocooned in the sleeping bag drinking in the beauty of the infinite vision. Later in the night, the moon came out in full l brightness casting pale blue shadows of the tall pine trees circling the camp. Once in a while I kept turning and curling up to keep warm. I did not want to miss the pretty night scene and used to peek out from my synthetic shell. Later that night, the moonlight, I saw fleeting shape of bats that flew over us checking the new guests into their midst. Next morning Vishnu bhai also mentioned about them.
I got up earlier Saturday morning and took a nature hike just before the sunrise. I climbed up a small hill that overlook a deep valley and faced another large rising cliff in the distance ahead. Over other side, there were other folds of ridges and valleys that were fading into distance. The hills were mostly granite rocks with pine forests growth in spread across in varying densities.
The hills and valleys were quiet in the morning and all I could hear was my own breathing in the ears... There were some calls from lonely birds. I was able to hear some duck calls from the lake once in a while. The east sky had started getting brighter but the west sky hung on to the deep dark blue with a strange lining of deep pale red on the horizon. Reminded me of the days in theater lighting sense.
Went back to the camp and re-lit the fire from the smouldering ashes. Slowly, the others awoke and started milling around the fire to warm up from the cold sleep. People had breakfast in their own little dishes or plates or bowls. The group here is more individualistic in terms of cooking. But that soon changed as every one was sharing all the stuff to others who were interested. There was plenty of stuff.
The first study circle in the morning was up in the rocks. Vishnu bhai had made a beautiful flyer for everyone containing the Gayatri mantra. He let the chanting of Om Anandmayi, Chaitanyamayi, Satyamayi, Parame.
The only picture that was taken was of the group on the last day before we parted.
Our first circle was on the subject of calm, peace, equality. It was about 9 in the morning, and as Chandresh said, we were up on the rocks, on a flat area 30 feet above the campsite. Vishnubhai chanted the Gayatri and we inhaled the fresh morning air. Bindi walked around inquisitively, as she did for all our circles, then lay down after a few minutes, as if understanding and abiding by the topic of the morning.
We read short passages from the sm all pamphlet "Bases of Yoga" and proceeded to talk about the place of calm and equality in our lives. I remember in particular reading and talking about atmosphere, how it is possible to create a spiritual atmosphere and carry it around with oneself, positively "infecting" others with its quiet and joy.
The sun slowly rose higher behind us, over the ridge, and gradually we all became multiple personalities as the large black ants explored every inch of our bodies. At the end of the circle Vishnu bhai led another chant, and we made our way back to the camp below.
The group now split for various activities. Dana, who is an avid naturalist and flower-watcher, left to hike back down the trail to the cars, where the most greenery and flowers could be found. At times during the weekend I would pass Dana near camp, and she would have her eyes glued to the ground, picking out the smallest leaf and twig. Several others shared her enthusiasm, and even though this was not an area abundant in large or showy flowers, there were several varieties of bloom close to the ground, their tiny heads only one or two inches above the soil.
Vishnu, having taken care of the over-excited Bindi all night, was a little sleep-deprived, and decided to stay near camp and rest. He had brought an immense hammock (it looked big enough to fit five people), and soon he had it strung between two trees between my tent and Dana's, and was blissfully staring up into the shimmering green of the pines above.
Marta, always a water sprite, went out to circumambulate the lake. Shriner is perhaps the smallest lake I've stayed at in the Sierra, and it's possible to walk around it in half an hour. There is a trail of sorts around the lake, but at many points you find yourself scrambling through a short stretch of brush, or over a few rocks. Being such a small lake, and so late in the summer , the water temperature was very warm, and in the morning a lazy mist would rise from the surface near our campsite. Girish, Chandresh, Prapanna, Celest and I went for a hike up into the rocks. We headed east, up the small cleft in the rocks where we were camped. The canyon narrows to fifty feet for a short space, then widens out and joins the large ridge to the north of our camp. We scrambled up and down, over the granite faces, around fifteen-foot "erratics", boulders left standing in odd and unpredictable places by glaciers 10,000 years ago.
We soon found ourselves at a drop-off point, where our ridge falls away into two valleys on either side, Cole Creek to the north and Tanglefoot Canyon to the south. Energy was low, the sun was beating down on us, so we turned back and ascended to the highest point of the ridge, overlooking Cole Creek Canyon.
Bindi had accompanied us the entire time, as she was wont to do with anyone venturing more than five feet away from the campsite. She proved to be not just an intrepid camper, but a dexterous hiker and climber as well. Many times we would scramble up a rock five or six feet tall, and wonder if Bindi could possibly maneuver such an obstacle. "No problem!" she would say, panting and smiling, and throw herself up the face as if she had spent every day hiking in this mountain splendour .
On the ridge, in a little hollow generously provided by the Sierran granite, we sat for an hour, munching on the various nuts, fruit, and chips we had brought, and talked of the larger world around. We spoke of culture, education, the Internet, society and history, literacy. Bindi lay above us, on the highest point, sunning herself in the midday rays. Toward the end of the conversation we had reached a point of divergence of views, as happens in any thoughtful group, and just at the point when we would have to agree to disagree, or stop talking and ponder our separate ideas, Girish broke in with a timely suggestion to meditate. For the next five minutes we sat in silence, on the top of the world, and it was as if we had become one being, merged with the grandeur of the peaks around.
The retreat started, for some of us anyway, on Thursday night. Prapanna drove up from southern California, taking the back route via 395 through Nevada, while Celest and I met at Lodi and drove up together.
The drive from Lodi takes about 2 1/2 hours, but it was over in the blink of an eye, because Celest and I talked the entire time. She is a therapist (individual and family) and as it turns out I had lots of questions for her. In our life right now, trust -- what it means, how it can be broken or mended, what kinds exist -- is a central concern. Celest had a number of illuminations for me on this topic, and as we climbed the Sierra foothills our talk turned to our spiritual community.
Everyone in it, I've discovered, has a unique relationship to everyone else and to the formal collectives (the Ashram, Auroville , local groups). Celest had been a part of SAA and is currently active in the Bay Area groups, whereas (apart from these Inter net interactions) fairly isolated, almost solitary.
While preparing for the retreat I read several passages by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother on collective yoga. What I gleaned from them is that it isn't enough to have a common ideal, no matter how high or pure; for a collective yoga to exist there must be a connection on a deeper level. There must be a unity of consciousness, necessarily not one of mind but of soul.
Sri Aurobindo goes further: the gnostic collectivity, he says, consists of individuals who feel the entire group as existing within themselves. In other words, each gnostic individual has enlarged the consciousness to include the others, who are felt as within, not "other" at all. But before that point, I said to Celest, what can kind of collective can we be? What kind of ties do we have? As we turned onto the bumpy roads to Shriner Lake, neither of us had an answer, but we felt the question sink deep within.
The last stretches of road seemed to have twice as many potholes as before. Or maybe it was Celest's new tires complaining at having to endure such a harsh maiden journey. We arrived at the trailhead at 8 pm, just as the sun went down and the western sky turned rose.
The parking are a by the trailhead is ringed with magnificent pines and firs reaching two hundred feet into the sky. Immediately you are dwarf ed by their size and solidity. Coming from the valley, where it has been 100+ for several weeks, the air seemed downright cold, though the temperature couldn't have been less than 60. The silence and peace at the trailhead was palpable, entering immediately into your mind. Wilderness. We started up the trail immediately -- Chandresh has already described it well -- and plodded along in the darkening dusk. After 45 minutes we came to a downward slope which seemed unfamiliar, and, uncertain, I halt ed, then turned back. After a few steps we saw a light bobbing in the distance, coming closer, and who should emerge from the shadows than...Prapanna, racing along to meet us. We climbed back on some rocks, reconnoitered, watched the stars come out, and finally found the turn-off to Shriner Lake that I was eager not to miss. We were to find out the next day how disastrous it would have been to continue on that trail in the middle of the night.
But our trails and trials weren't over. At the lake -- now just a short ten minute walk away -- we had to go over a series of rocks at the shoreline to get to the campsite. Struggling with over-heavy packs, out of shape, stumbling in the dark, those last hundred yards seemed harder than the entire mile and a half before. But at the last minute, when we were ready to throw ourselves in the damp reeds next to the lake, we found the campsite.
Arriving at camp is always a relief, never more so than when you are hiking at night -- something I have rarely done. The needs of the body take over, and it is interesting to watch oneself engage in survival actions almost by instinct. We were all hungry and thirsty, but shelter comes first, and we spent the next half an hour getting sleeping bags out, arranging gear, and climbing into bed.
As Prapanna and Celest lay in their bags close to the main firepit, I hunkered nearby and we talked of the weekend. We sipped sparingly on the last of our water, as nobody wanted to go collect more; and munched on a few candy bars. The stars came out, with the Milky Way a wide glowing arc over the lake. We slept the hard -- but sometimes fitful -- sleep of exhaustion.
Friday morning Prapanna, Celest and I arose with the dawn. No bugs! Our warnings had been not just misleading, but absolutely wrong. By some quirk of nature, grace and circumstance, this was practically the only time in my life I've camped in the summer without mosquitoes. And next to a stagnant lake! It was not to be believed -- just enjoyed.
The rest of the group would be coming up that night, and to prevent them from missing the turnoff, we made a makeshift sign from a sheet of paper, two sticks, and a few inches of rope. Every trip has to have such a sign, somewhere , telling the late-comers how to find camp. In addition to the standard arrow (and "Auro") ours had a traced symbol from the pocket edition of Savitri and a quote describing Satyavan's forest abode, equal to our own:
The wilderness with its mighty monotone,
The morning like a lustrous seer above,
The passion of the summits lost in heaven,
The titan murmur of the endless woods.
After a breakfast of various kinds of gruel -- take a few grains, add water, heat to a warm mush, eat with relish -- we sat and read the mystical Canto V, Book 7 from Savitri, The Finding of the Soul, where the woman Savitri, in an intense eff ort of surrender, releases her last shreds of mind-self, and finds her psychic being, her true self. In a magic moment this time-born soul turns within to meet its divine aspect:
"Here in this chamber of flame and light they met;
They looked upon e ach other, knew themselves,
The secret deity and its human part,
The calm immortal and the struggling soul.
Then with a magic transformation's speed
They rushed into each other and grew one."
We sat on our logs, listening to the crickets and crows. The sun had barely reached our forest's solitude. The canto spoke directly to us:
"Once more she was human upon earthly soil ..."
Arising from our spiritual bath in the prose of Savitri, we decided to explore the trail leading into Tanglefoot Canyon. The hike of the previous night still hung heavy on our muscles and bones, and we weren't eager to climb any peaks; but we wan ted to take a look at the lush valley described in the guidebooks. So we donned our day packs and trotted off, three experienced hikers off on an easy amble.
That's what caught us -- we relaxed our camp sense, lulled by a false sense of security.
The trail to Tanglefoot turns off from Shriner at a little field of rocks. We carefully planted our sign, then sauntered dow n through pines, into a little green cleft, and emerged in a few minutes onto a ridge. The view here looks down five hundred feet to the valley floor, and you can see several miles down the canyon, toward the foothills. It was spectacular -- and hot.
That's when we discovered we had blithely and somewhat stupidly assumed we would find water in the canyon -- didn't the map show a stream? -- and had brought precious little water, about a quart and a half among the three of us. Hiking on a hot day a person can use up between one and four quarts an hour. We may have been experienced, but that didn't mean we were smart.
The trail winds down the canyon wall in a series of switchbacks, all the time maintaining the same glorious view. Prapanna jogged ahead in his sandals and shorts, while Celest and I lagged behind. Every once in a while we would stop in the shade of a small pine and let the early afternoon breeze lift the perspiration from our bodies. And at every step we thought of the water -- ? -- below.
The trail emerges onto a flat plain, which is covered with waist-high ferns crouching under broken pine trees. Their cool green washed our eyes clean of the dusty ridge trail.
But water? --
In the middle of the canyon floor we came to Tanglefoot Creek. Except for a very brown and foul-looking puddle, there was nothing to be found. We sat on a fallen log overlooking the dry creekbed and laughed at our lack of care, and the price we would pay on the hike back to camp . It was good to be in the company of those who could take physical hardship lightly and not let it affect the emotions or mind. It was good to be alive, though hot and dry and with a hot hour-long ridge away from the lake.
By some trick of consciousness we were at the top before we knew it, the hike back up seeming to take no time at all.
Back in camp, we relaxed, refilled our water bottles and ourselves, and planned our greeting for those coming in. I would go to meet the hikers coming up the trail, to make sure they didn't miss the turn; Prapanna would ferry them across the uncertain rocks on the lakeside trail; and Celest would greet everyone at camp with a smile and a cup of tea. And that's how it worked out -- for everyone except Sally.
Returning from our hike on Saturday morning, our group found Marta and Vishnu at the camp. We ate some lunch -- didn't we just eat breakfast? -- and were amazed that it was still only 1 pm or so. It felt like an entire day had gone by, with our morning circle on calm, the hike up the rocks with Bindi, sitting and talking... Time and experience have a way of being compressed in the mountains, so that a day can feel like a week, and a week, an eternity. The city consciousness washes off quickly, like dust in an afternoon shower.
Girish, Chandresh, Prapanna and I decided to go swimming. Although the lake had manifested more than one dead fish, had calf-high muck around much of its edge, and sported an unknown brown snake (spied by Celest the first day), there is a sense of freedom that one gets from swimming in a mountain lake which can't be denied. Besides, in this case the water was so warm!
Marta came along to take pictures -- though somehow none were ever taken -- and we found an inviting boulder on the east side, where the water was six or seven feet deep. Muckless! We stripped to our shorts and in a short time were all swimming around, playing water polo with a small plastic football. (Now where did that come from?) Girish and Chandresh, the strongest swimmers, swam across the lake to a rock opposite, while I sat on the rock and shivered in the light breeze.
Across the lake two figures could be seen walking along the trail towards our camp...two women...one was Dana, no mistaking her hat and backpack...and the other must be Sally!
Girish and I had waited for her the night before, at the trailhead, until 9 pm. But, we were soon to learn, Sally arrived at 10:15, having spent seven hours driving up from Santa Cruz, across the coastal mountains and the California valley and the foothills and the potholes of the access roads. She thought about attempting the hike at night, but wisely held back, and instead slept in the open bed of Prapanna's truck, gazing into the perfect circle of sky ringed by pines.
As soon as she arrived her ebullient cross-cultural east-coast west-coast Aurovillian magniloquence dominated center stage, and as the swimmers straggled one by one into camp we gathered around to hear her story, or rather stories, for she seemed an inexhaustible fund of knowledge on things and people and events here and there and everywhere.
Sally had left her pack at the other end of the lake, and after half an hour of story-telling, returned to retrieve it. The rest of us toweled and ate more snacks -- didn't we just finish lunch? -- and lingered with the remaining day.
When she returned Sally was ready to see the heights, so she and I and Bindi took off for the high point of the ridge.
On Friday, Prapanna had lent his back as stepping-stool so we could tie our climbers' rope to a tree, giving us a line with which to ascend the first steep section of rock face up from our camp. During the day it seemed unnecessary, but at one time or another we all used it to steady ourselves on those first fifteen feet of rock, and in my mind it came to symbolize in my mind the spirit of adventure. It was always calling to us, beckoning us up the mountain. A silly detail, perhaps, but then again, symbols have a way of becoming greater than themselves.
Bindi, Vishnu's dog (I hesitate to say she belongs to the Ashram because she has such devotion to Vishnu) also came to be a symbol over the weekend. Last year she didn't come, but this year she made herself felt in almost every activity. Bindi is a medium-large, short haired, large-heated girl who talks all the time. Maybe it was the woods -- a more exciting variety of scents can't be imagined for a valley dog -- or maybe it was the 24-hour company, but she was always underfoot, whining expectantly, nuzzling anyone who would glance at her, requesting scratches and rubs and affection and generally manifesting a lovable, vital, animal nature.
When Sally and I left to climb the rocky ridge behind the camp, all it took was a single word for Bindi to come leaping up the rocks with us. After climbing up the first fifteen feet, you traverse a ten-foot ledge just above the campsite, then cut in further, coming out onto a long flat face of granite. This rises to a first overlook of the lake. Sally and I climbed up there, and became engrossed in our conversation.
Then we crossed the intervening dip, a few hundred feet of up and down between the two high points, and breathing heavily, looked down into Cole Creek Canyon. Suddenly we looked around. Where was Bindi? We were so intent on our conversation that we had forgotten completely about her. I called a few times -- nothing.
A few more calls, and she appeared on a ledge several hundred feet away. She was calling to us, barking and whining, "How do I get over there?" Looking over the ledge, she gauged the drop and instinctively followed the ridge down to a point in the valley where she could make the jump, then came crashing through the thick manzanita back up towards us.
Back at camp, Girish, Prapanna, Chandresh and Celest were engaged in a raucous game of cards. Their taunts and howls, exhortations and denials could be heard from one end of the world to the other.
Girish had brought the playing cards and persuaded us to join him for a game of "Literature". The tempo slowly picked up and our howling brought Vishnubhai out of his slumber from the hammock and he joined us as the presiding witness to who was cheating and who was not. Between several games, Prapanna showed us a very nifty magic show with the playing cards. All of us were very much impressed with the trick. It was nice of him to even show us the workings of the trick. It was getting towards the evening and a little chill had started to set in.
After session of card games, some of us decided to take a hike around the lake. Prapanna, forever the leader of the pack, forged ahead on and around rocky trail. Girish, Dana and I were in the tow. The area around the lake being open to sky, the sun still beat down hard on the rocks and soon we were breathing hard and it felt hot. There was an area of lake which was dammed off by people and there were some fish in the real murky waters near the wall. Prapanna eyed one large fish which he pointed out and mentioned that it seemed to behaving difficulty breathing (through the gills) and probably was dying. The trail around the lake passed through quite a variety of landscapes. There were rocks, then there were thick brushes, the dam wall over which there were tree branches leaning over under which we had to crawl. Then there were the mushy clay, grass areas that made us backtrack some into higher dryer rocks. There were also thick bushes where we literally had to barge our way through. Having the shorts on made us realize what Bindi was going through, even though she does have a thicker coat to protect her.
Back at the campsite, Marta and Celeste had started the evening meal preparation. Some of us started collect the firewood for the evening. Girish disappeared over the rocks with Bindi trailing behind. Prapanna had prepared a special gravy and Marta and Celest prepared a rice dish. I prepared some noodle for Girish and I. We all finished our meals most of us even cleaned the stuff, had tea and still there was no sign of Girish . People started wondering if we should go out to look for him...
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