The longer I live, the more clearly I hear what the universe is telling me. I listened a few years ago when Kathy Bresler recommended a subscription to the BrainPickings.org e-newsletter, which on July 17, 2017 covered When Things Fall Apart by the Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron. The excerpts in the BrainPickings newsletter made Pema’s book seem a good read for Tina, my supervisor at Positive Coaching Alliance, who was on leave because things fell apart for her when her father faced sudden, serious health challenges.
The day I learned of Pema’s book, I mentioned it during a phone call with my friend, Ann, who lives up in Kennewick, Wash. Ann called it the most important book in her life, key to sustaining her sobriety.
The next day I mentioned the book over lunch with my co-worker, Shelley. She also exclaimed the book’s importance as a basis of her own Buddhism and a force that helped her accept and embrace even the most difficult changes life can bring.
When several influential people in my life all at once try to fill the same gap in my knowledge or experience, I understand that the universe is trying to tell me something. So I listened. I read When Things Fall Apart and gave Tina her own copy when she returned from leave. Less than two weeks later, on August 3, Tina tearfully told me she had to lay me off just a month shy of the 12th anniversary of her hiring me. My last day there would be August 16.
Within minutes of the initial shock, Pema’s message surfaced in my mind. Her lessons about the inevitable, painful change that life brings helped me survive that moment, and because her message had arrived so serendipitously, it seemed ordained that I could accept and embrace this difficult change. I became attached to When Things Fall Apart the way other people attach to their Bible or Koran.
The book’s arrival as largesse, courtesy of the universe, got me thinking how some turns of phrase equate inexplicable good fortune with interstellar events. If something is meant to be, “it’s in the stars.” Right-place-at-the-right-time moments happen because “the planets must be aligned.”
My cosmic musings soon had me hearing the universe tell me to go to Oregon for the solar eclipse. Unemployed and in need of a vision for next career steps, I planned to leave in three days, listen to rivers while sleeping on their beds whenever possible, cross Crater Lake off my bucket list, and witness the eclipse in its path of totality at Madras, Oregon.
I packed my Mazda with camping gear, road snacks, Pema’s book and another that guides my spirituality, Luther Standing Bear’s Land of the Spotted Eagle. Preparing for what amounted to my version of a Lakota vision quest (which, in Trump times, I knew would involve socially purposeful work), I needed Standing Bear’s consideration of the Great Mystery of nature at the heart of Lakota spirituality and what the wasichu has wrought.
Leaving home the morning of August 19, I spent the first hour of my vision quest seeking NASA-approved eclipse glasses, which 7-Eleven stores were offering for free. Several stores were out of stock. It dawned on me that if my pace to Oregon did not speed up, there would be no need of eclipse glasses, anyway, and chances were that I would find another 7-Eleven along the 550-plus miles to Madras.
I crossed the glassy San Francisco Bay over the San Mateo Bridge, passed glass towers of East Bay towns trying to be cities, rolled over decrepit railroad tracks built in a time when our country had a future, past dust devil dancefloors of fallow farms that fail to feed the fieldhands who work to feed us, only to be demonized and deported back to the violence they feared enough to flee to our violence. At a Safeway in Redding, where I bought water, almonds, peanut butter and beef jerky, the parking lot was full of tweakers. But those frustrating Americanisms were somewhat soothed by a burger and a beer and the sight of Calatrava’s famous Sundial Bridge.
Then came the natural scenery of the Lake Shasta area, Castle Crags and Black Butte and other majestic-but-less-famous-than-Mount-Shasta formations. Depending on the highway curve, they resembled the new problems in my life, looming deceptively large from a distance and seeming to shrink to less imposing heights up close.
Snow-covered Mount Shasta offered no such illusions. It is just one giant mountain.
The next natural feature of note after the split off on Highway 97 and crossing the Oregon border was Upper Klamath Lake. Forest fire smoke gave an unnatural orange to the setting sun, and from one angle, Aspen Butte slashed diagonally across the orb, so it looked like a quarter-eaten pumpkin pie.
Near dark, I decided to camp at Jackson Kimball State Forest, pitching my tent by the light of my cell phone clenched between my teeth. Coyotes howled most of the night in a surprising variety of voices, some so distinct – real, dreamed or imagined through on-again-off-again sleep – that I picked out the sounds of several individuals. They became distant pets in the night, playing a rhythm-and-echo game with a herd of terrorized cattle bellowing in the distance.
I hit the road at ten for Crater Lake. Hiking the Rim Trail reveals one of those rare views that match its hype. Crater Lake is a blue you can’t see anywhere else.
About 90 minutes later, wildfire smoke almost completely obscured the lake.
The park offers a lot of other scenery along a loop drive, including Vidae Falls.
Out the southern edge of the park, Highway 62 rolled to the Rogue River National Forest, where I pitched my tent at Natural Bridge. This would be my first night of this trip to listen to a river and perhaps receive a vision. That seemed to call for some form of purification ritual analogous to the Lakota inipi.
While pale in comparison to what a traditional vision seeker endures, my wood-gathering turned into a self-imposed, quixotic, ascetic challenge to carry as much as possible as far as possible in the sun-setting heat. However brave I felt four days after being cast out from my professional home, that wood-gathering was a needed emotional purge. Then, in the cool dusk and overnight, the river whispered especially sweet secrets.
And in the morning, less than a mile’s hike away, the Rogue roared. It reminded me of Lower Falls in Yellowstone – not as tall and majestic, but just as effective in eliciting involuntary ego loss.
The river’s whisper and its roar both echoed inside me. Otherwise, I felt empty. Back in the car, creative and artistic visions took shape. I drove blissfully to Bend, where the universe delivered me those 7-Eleven eclipse glasses. I’d only snacked since that burger two days before in Redding, so lunch was a steak sandwich splurge at Deschutes Brewing.
Friends had recommended Bend for its natural beauty and recreation opportunities, but lingering there would keep me from finding a campground close enough to Madras to get there in time for the next morning’s eclipse, given the apocalyptic traffic predictions. First choice, Tumalo State Park, was packed. A ranger said she’d just called Prineville, and they had plenty of space, but none by the time I got there. Jasper Point also had no vacancies. I asked the campground hostess what she would do in my shoes, as I did not want to violate any laws sleeping roadside in my car.
“Can you do without electricity?”
“OK, well, you see that stop sign, about 50 yards outside the gate? You take a right, onto that unpaved road. Anywhere you see a pullout is a campsite. They’re free, because they’re undeveloped, just a pit toilet. I’m so sorry, but that’s the best I can do.”
The jagged rocky road threatened my tires, which were overdue for replacement, so I took the first turnout. Beyond the parking area, and that pit toilet (which, on my third night on the road, was the cleanest I’d had yet), a grassy hill sloped down to the reservoir. It lapped at the shore during a mellow sunset and all through my sleep and when I awoke at sunrise.
In Prineville, I stopped at the first place that sold coffee, figuring it was not the kind of town to offer much selection. The coffee was bitter and burnt. Leaving out the other end of town took me right past a Starbucks, but I did not want to pay for more coffee. Instead I paid penance for my metropolitan bias, which assumed that Prineville could not offer quality coffee. Newly sensitive to my narrow views, rolling down the road to Madras past rural poverty and dead soldier tributes, it was easier to see how people in so-called “fly-over country” would vote differently.
The hysterical traffic forecast never materialized. A few pockets slowed over the last five miles. Many cars randomly pulled over for eclipse viewing from the shoulder, and some paid sites had their fields covered with rows of RVs. By eight, I was parked in downtown Madras, sipping delicious coffee at a picnic table in a food truck court near Sahalee Park, and testing angles toward the sun with my cell phone camera on a tripod.
I tried tricks I’d heard, such as draping eclipse glasses over the camera lens, but no cell phone photo can do an eclipse justice. That’s OK. Relying on mind’s-eye photos can make an experience more memorable.
The sky slowly darkened. The air cooled. People murmured and shouted as totality neared. Then, for about two minutes, all that remained of the sun was a brilliant blazing liquid-chrome rim the color of the Silver Surfer. Two days after seeing the nowhere-but-here blue of Crater Lake, I saw the nowhere-but-here-and-never-but-now shine of a disappeared sun.
Later on when the crowd thinned out I wandered the streets looking at souvenirs. I left around noon so I could make it to Ann’s house in Kennewick on time for the dinner we’d planned. It took an hour to get out of Madras and another hour before traffic loosened enough to really move.
Around three, a tire blew out. From the shoulder, with cars speeding dangerously close, and no experience changing tires, I called Mazda roadside assistance. I was so far from anywhere identifiable that, even with Mazda using its GPS, they asked for descriptions of physical aspects of the landscape to help figure out where to send help. They said they would have to call back.
While waiting, I re-read parts of When Things Fall Apart to remind me how to embrace this unwelcome change. Minutes later an official highway rescue tow-truck pulled up and two real men put my spare on in about 10 minutes. As they did, Mazda called back and said it would cost some hundreds of dollars and at least three hours because of my remote location, and by the way, didn’t I know that the roads were crowded because of people wanting to see the eclipse earlier that day?
The tow-truck crew thought the spare could make it to Kennewick if I kept my speed under fifty. That meant I would not reach Hermiston for tire replacement before closing time, so I should pull over and check the heat of the spare compared to the other tires, because if the spare blew I’d be stuck in the countryside until I could get a tow. I offered them $20 for beer in a coded attempt to regain a sense of masculinity, but they refused it.
Less than thirty minutes later, I was in a seven-mile back-up in Wasco, waiting an hour-and-a-half to turn from highway 97 to highway 84. But (I summoned Pema), what beautiful rock formations out my windows! Such intricate Mighty Favog faces and patterns you’d see as a child when you had nothing but time! What a blessing to recall the eclipse image—“best album cover ever!”
Other than fear of tire troubles, I loved 84, which skirts the Columbia River with its barges, its John Day Dam, its barren hillsides, and its spectacular swallowing of the setting sun in my rearview mirror as I hit Hermiston. The spare was warm, but I decided, in all my vast automotive expertise, that it would be OK.
During another 90-minute delay in a two-mile backup to get onto 82, my rearview showed a drunk staggering up behind me holding a wrinkled bag of booze. He wandered past again, coming from the other direction a half hour later, holding a new bag, and it was another 15 minutes before I saw the liquor store.
Once through that back-up, the homestretch to Ann’s house was a grooved road over the bridge and onto the interstate. I encouraged my tires out loud that they could make it. They did! And only five hours late for dinner! Ann and her husband, Jim, and I spoke deeply that night and over the next two days. Some of the topics were personal and painful, born of the trying experiences that had led us to Pema.
The eclipse experience remained vibrant, too. Folks standing in line with me at Discount Tire started talking about it. The guy in front of me showed me a photo on his phone that matched my memory but far exceeded the quality of anything I could shoot on my phone.
“How did you get that on your phone?” I asked.
“I transferred it from my $20,000 camera.”
After two days of rest and real food and clean sheets at Ann’s place, I took off for Portland, completely relaxed and able to enjoy the piney scenery of the Columbia River Gorge, near the town of Hood River. I stopped to see Horsetail Falls.
I had to make that quick to be on time for my visit with Pastor Craig Brown, whom I had not seen since our playground basketball days in high school. We caught up for a couple hours sitting in the sanctuary he was rebuilding in his historic church, and I heard every war story he was willing to share from the streets of Milwaukee to his tours as an Army infantry sergeant in Iraq. We had taken much different paths to the peace we felt that day.
That night I slept on a river bed about 40 miles outside Portland at the Gales Creek Campground in Tillamook State Forest.
In the morning, I aimed for Silver Falls State Park, about a two-hour drive, and decided to try the Trail of 10 Falls.
It was one of the most spectacular hikes of my life, winding past, behind, and under the 10 waterfalls that provide the trail’s name.
Between waterfalls, the trail meanders along a creek and through dense forests of fern and moss in every shade of green you can imagine and some you can’t.
The beauty at every step helped ease the pain that accumulated from all those steps. Even without the waterfalls, the hike through such rich and varied greenery would have been worth it. But when you hear that thunderous falling water and wonder what it will look like, and then catch a glimpse where the trail curves, your pain fades, and you keep on until just the right slant of late afternoon light strikes the falling wall of water and rainbow flame licks dance from its edge.
Going around the bend after one of the falls, I saw a woman standing on the trail, writing in her notebook. I stopped, “Are you a poet?” I asked. It started a conversation that probably lasted 10 minutes.
We covered the usual where-you-from and what-brought-you-here, but what had brought us each there was deep. She’d been eclipsed, too, something about a man and then the need to drive from Ohio just to watch the sun — which keeps us all alive — disappear in broad daylight and then re-appear to let us know that even apparent cosmic cataclysm is just an illusion.
We fellow road warriors, wanderers and wonderers were both so raw, so vulnerable and awestruck from recent past days of packed senses and surges of urgency that soon we were both near tears. Even as we each acknowledged our unusual openness while it was unfolding, it still seemed completely natural that we strangers bare souls.
From my backpack, I pulled out Pema for a passage that would remind us both that everything would be OK. Some other tangent, maybe what we’d each observed on our hikes, prompted me to also pull out Standing Bear and flip – more quickly than I expected to be able, as though I’d been practicing – to the page where he shares the Lakota wisdom “He iye ki ya mani yo” (“Recognize everything as you walk.”)
I realized that between my five-day beard, my camp smell, my fatigue, my sensory overwhelm from the waterfalls and the ferns and the eclipse, and now my proselytizing from two strange and off-the-beaten-path books, that she was ready to back-pedal down the trail. I also caught myself experiencing for the first time a faith so full that I could not prevent its overflow. But she’d had enough, so I quieted and wished her well, happy for the mindblow that waited for her in the waterfall around the bend that I’d just come around.
Finishing the trail at seven I was exhausted and in minor pain. Sleep sounded good, but I doubted my luck at finding any more perfect river beds on this trip.
Instead, I loaded up on diner food and coffee and sped 10 hours through the starry night back to the Bay Area, at home on the road, comfortable with being eclipsed in a universe that showed me there are times when things fall together.