Thursday, November 12, 2009

Days in Death Valley

Despite the obvious connection, this is not a post about swelteringly hot and torturous classes.  My classes have been sweaty and pleasant recently.  It is a post about the actual Death Valley, the national park.  You might be surprised to learn that Death Valley is also quite pleasant, at least at certain times of year.  I went last spring and the weather was perfect - 70's and sunny during the day, 40's at night, and all the wildflowers were in bloom.

I visited on a whim, with my roommate.  I woke up one day and said "I need to take a trip," and 36 hours later we were in the car heading east.  We were there for just two days and one night, and it was fabulous.  We saw the canyons, the dunes, the salt flats, the creeks, the badlands... we camped out in the middle of a valley and listened to the wind howling at night... we went on a hike with a ranger in the morning... we saw a pair of foxes... it was an amazing little get-away.  Here are a few pictures to give you an image of the place.

The valley where we camped.

Sand dunes

Golden Canyon

Salt flats

As you can see, it's an incredibly cool place!  It's been on my mind a lot this week.

I was at a kind of weird place in my yoga practice at the time of this trip - lots of questions - and visiting this park gave me unexpected clarity in a couple of ways.

First, it made me appreciate my body.  A strong, healthy body is such an incredible gift.  Death Valley attracts a cool group of visitors, because it's not as touristy and "commercialized" as some as the other parks.  People come to Death Valley because, for one reason or another, they really want to be there.  There were many return visitors, and many others who had spent years watching the Travel Channel or reading travel books and dreaming of seeing this park.  Most of the visitors were middle aged, much older than my grad school roommate and I.  And many of them were in poor physical condition.  Some were simply aging; a little slower, a little stiffer, a little more cautious.  But I particularly remember a  man who was visiting from Boston for a week with his wife.  He was overweight and walked with a cane.  He couldn't follow along with the guided tour because it took him too long to climb a few 12 inch high rock ledges.  His wife came along and chatted with us for a bit, then went down to help her husband.  She said that he would probably be able to get up and see the canyon, but they were going to have to go at a slower pace.

I felt empathy for this nice guy from my home city, but more than that, I was struck by a realization.  For a huge portion of our population, this is now the standard of living.  People's bodies aren't taken care of, they break down long before their time, and they never reach their full potential.

And this is why it matters: because we live in this world, filled with natural wonders, and your body is the vessel that carries you through it.  I felt this intense gratitude for my body that day, and I felt so much joy in my ability to scramble up rocks, hike through sand dunes, and sleep out on the plains.  And I felt that this is why we really need yoga in our lives.  Not because we want to look pretty in standing bow pose or have a cute butt in our Shakti shorts (although those things do happen along the way!)  But because yoga gives us the gift of a strong, healthy body, for life, and everyone deserves that.  We don't even have to age, at least not in the way that it usually happens.  And in these bodies of ours, we can experience the entire world.

The national parks bring out the philosophers in us all!

The other thing that I experienced was a sense of scale.  Especially in a place like Death Valley, where you can see millions of years' of history etched into the canyon walls, it's impossible not to feel that there are things much larger than yourself.  The rocks themselves appear as living things, but their lifespans are measured in millennia.  We followed a knowledgeable park ranger, a slim, quiet woman, who told us the Buddhist saying: "There is no death, there is only matter that changes form."  Like I said, everyone is a philosopher here...

I was watching a public TV special on the National Parks last week, and I was blown away by the words of one park ranger.  I don't have the precise quote, but he said something to this effect: When you visit the parks, you see that something exists that is so much bigger than yourself, and you see that it is majestic and powerful, and you see that you have a place in it.  And then you realize that, if this power (energy, chi, spirit, god, or whatever you'd like to call it) exists inside of you, then it must be inside of every other person, too.  And once you feel that understanding, once you realize that tangible connection, the way you relate to your fellow man is forever changed.

Holy cow.  This sounds like some serious Yogic philosophy to me, and it's coming from a park ranger, describing how he feels in Yellowstone National Park among the trees.

But he's absolutely right.  And I felt this, too.


hannahjustbreathe said...

Oh, what a lovely post.

I always feel the way you described when I'm near the ocean. It's breadth and magnificance is so humbling but inspiring. I'm reminded of how small I really am, how brief my stint on this Earth will be, and how so much time passed before I arrived and how much will pass once I'm gone. It's like the ocean whispers, "Make the most of now, this time you're given."

And then I dive into the surf, and I marvel at my body's strength against that ocean's strength---thanks to my yoga---and we wrestle and compete and laugh, until, finally, we carry one another, gently, peacefully.

It is good to be reminded of these things, yes?


Big G said...

Exactly. What a great post! Like all of us, I see plenty of people whose bodies have broken down and they have a hard time in life. Our teachers tell us all the time that we are giving ourselves a great gift by doing the yoga, and they are so right.

bikramyogachick said...

J~ First of all, thanks for sharing the pics. Gorgeous. I need to head out there sometime. Secondly, I am one year from being 40. My mom is about to turn 60. She smokes and does not exercise. So the whole subject you brought up about aging has been on my mind lately. It saddens me to see my mom because I know in the next ten years she's going to suffer as her body decides the years of smoking and not moving around will take their toll. I'm grateful I found the yoga at age 36. I tell her it's never too late, you're never too old or too sick to start, but she won't try it. I just keep putting a mat down in my mind for her when I practice. Maybe someday...

tracik said...

well said. Be good to your body and it will be good to you. My parents set a good example for me and my three sisters. They taught us to eat clean, healthy foods and to exercise. Body needs to move. my parents have been runners for over 30 years. I grew up watching them be dedicated to their sport and being good to their bodies. So even at 68 and 73 they continue to run and look and feel many, many years younger. Something to look up to for sure. Thans for yet another awesome post.

Oh..And i live that last pic. Beautiful.

tracik said...

meant "love that last pic" !

Dorothy said...

This is a great post. I first felt my sense of scale on a cruise ship of all places. It was a combination of being on a boat that size that could float no problem because there's so much water and nothing else when you're out there cruising. I started to thing about all that water and all the stuff in it and how much we still don't know about the rock we live on... Yeah. Cool things our world, our universe, and our individual and collective places in it.

thedancingj said...

I really love that you all understood exactly what I was trying to say here. It's great how we are all in this together, even though there are some things that we don't talk about so often.

That picture of the fox was sheer luck. I'd stopped the car and two foxes were wandering around, checking us out. We had space and battery left for ONE picture on the camera and were shooting blindly into the sun. I was so happy when I saw it!

Michelle, yes, you are so close, you really will have to take a trip out there this spring. I think I'm going to spend a couple days there on the way to TT in April... hm...

cirita said...

They say that with a healthy body comes a clear mind and a happy spirit. I truly believe it. I enjoyed your posting very much. You are an amazing writer. Love the pics too!! I'll need to drive to this place one day.

Cristina said...

Yes, yes, yes. Nature is so big, beautiful and humbling.
It is the same when we sail during the summer-time.
The ocean is there forever, the water has it's cycles, we are so dependent on the water that it is healthy and we need to take care of it. Just like we take care of our bodies. And with a healthy body it is so much easier to be there.

It's a beatiful post and beautiful pictures.

waylon said...

great! :)

thedancingj said...

Thank you! I loved writing this.

It's cool how many of you were reminded of the ocean by this post that was inspired by the desert. It makes a lot of sense, actually. I like living near the ocean. You can always see the horizon...