Many years ago while driving home from work, I hear a soft voice in my mind telling me to stop and take a hike at my favorite hiking spot called Monument Mountain.
The trail parking lot is approaching so I slow down, pull in and park. It is a beautiful fall evening; the leaves have not yet started to shed. The sun is low, but bright, and the temperature in the still air is perfect. I always hike in my bare feet, so I remove my shoes, grab a paper and pen and hike to the top, following the strenuous Hickey Trail that takes about 40 minutes.
At the base of the trail, there are gently worn paths of dirt, leaves, and pine needles. As the altitude increases, the roots of the trees jut out and cross the path in every direction.
Soon, fallen chunks of quartzite join the melee creating mini stairways here and there under the canopy of tall evergreens. The aroma is heavenly, damp but crisp. Then, I hear the soothing sound of falling water as I follow a sharp upward curve. The water fall is nestled in an alcove at the base of a huge chunk of rock. My eyes are drawn upwards where I can see only a hint of the 720 foot elevation gain that I am climbing. Two pairs of hikers pass me on their way down. I cross a stream before me on a log bridge. There is one other bridge farther ahead. As I ascend the steep route, the path winds, dips, curves, and zigzags.
Near the top, it is necessary to climb with all 4 limbs, hands grasping and pulling at the ledges, feet finding purchase on carefully laid stones that form very steep steps. Four-inch circles are painted on some trees to mark the path, keeping hikers away from the deadly cliffs. Evening light penetrates through the opening in the trees and grows steadily until, at the top, there is nothing but sky! I breathe in the amazing 360º view of the Housatonic River Valley in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts.
It feels like home up here, I’ve been here so many times. I choose from the half a dozen massive boulders at the peak, and wedge myself down for a good, seated meditation. I am alone, with my grandfather, safe and content. I close my eyes and say some words to myself that help to quiet my mind and become a student. Grandfather takes me on a magical journey; his stories are so vivid and alive that I am mesmerized. It’s like one of the best dreams I’ve ever had, one I don’t want to end. Then, suddenly, I feel a shiver of cold air and open my eyes instantly realizing that time has moved swiftly, and the sun has gone down!
My heart begins to pound immediately as I abruptly sit up straight. My breathing grows rapidly as I visually search the dark gray haze before me for the top of the path or anything that looks familiar. I get on my hands and knees. Seconds pass that feel like hours as the intensity of my fear grows. Then, I recognize the sensations of my grandfathers’ presence. Now I get it! This is it, a lesson that was hinted about many months earlier: to see without eyes and an opportunity to face my fears. I hear my grandfather’s voice in my mind saying, “I’m here. I will help you down the mountain.” Simultaneously, I perceive a warm sensation encircling my left hand. To say that I feel calmer is an overstatement, although I am reassured enough to get my body moving since my eyes have adjusted somewhat to the ever-darkening shades of black. So, I begin to descend, crawling on all fours, and I realize that what little light there is will soon disappear once I get below the trees. My mind begins to race with all manner of scary thoughts one after the other…
Grandfather lets me stew in my own fear for a while and then reminds me that he’s holding my hand: I am aware of the heat again in my hand. Once again, I can muster up the courage to move my body. I stay on all fours for what seems like forever. My knees feel every pebble, my hands grope for anything solid. I have moments when I’m laughing as an image of myself from above enters my consciousness of me crawling around in the dark scared to death. Then I’m crying as my fear consumes me again. Somehow, I’m able to make progress by alternately talking to myself and to Grandfather. He speaks very little, respecting my capacity to learn.
Several times, as I descend, I allow my dependence on my eyes to paralyze me because I can’t see a thing. There is no moon and it’s almost pitch black. When I reach a part of the path further down that I think I recognize, I stand and walk several paces. When I pay attention, the sensations against the bottoms of my feet help me to get a sense of where I am. These partial memories seem to light the path, for short segments of my journey. Nearer to the bottom, my fears take complete control. Try as I might, I am not able to talk or feel my way out of it. I’m stuck, standing frozen in one spot for many minutes.
I imagine bears attacking me and mountain lions eating me alive. The slightest sound has me imagining criminals lurking in the darkness, just waiting to hurt me. I think about my children and wonder how they’ll feel when I don’t return…ever. My heartbeat is pounding in my ears. They don’t even know where I am! Suddenly, I remember the pen and paper I stuffed into my pocket before I left the car, thoughts of writing a good-bye note to them pass through my awareness, but my pen is gone. Another thought, “it’s an object that could potentially prove that I was here if it is found with my fingerprints on it.” How absurd. This was too much so I shouted into the darkness, “Don’t think that way!”
Then I hear grandfather’s voice in my mind, saying “left”, snapping me out of it. I force myself to take a deep breath. I suspect that I must be close to the bottom by now even though I’ve lost any sense of time and I take a few hesitant steps to the left feeling pine needles between my toes. I know where I am!
A short time later, vehicles passing on the highway light up the spaces between the trees and I make my way back to my car. I shakily put my shoes on and very slowly drive myself home. By the time I get there my body is trembling so much that getting the key in the door takes forever. Relieved to be home, I decide to get in the shower. I stay in there for 45 minutes while my body convulses as it purges the fear from my system. I’m observing this with utter amazement; this is a whole new experience that taught me that…
I had found my way, all by myself.