A Conversation On Religious Experience

A couple of summers ago, a friend and I waited at a parking lot by Cottonwood Pass in Colorado for a ride back to Buena Vista. Bad weather had forced us off the Colorado Trail, and we now needed transportation to the nearest lodging venue. A pair of daytrippers, a middle-aged couple, appeared, walking back to their parked vehicle, done with their viewing and photography for the day. We walked over and made our request: could we please hitch a ride with them? They were not going back all the way to Buena Vista, but only to a campground nearby; would that work? We said it would; we would find another ride from there. In we hopped, and off we went.

As we drove, introductions were made; we were from Brooklyn, our benefactors were visiting from Texas, sans children and grandchildren.  When asked what I ‘did,’ I said I was a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York. Intrigued, they asked which classes I taught; when I listed philosophy of religion as one of them, they asked me if I was religious. I said that I wasn’t religious in belief or practice, but was very interested in the problems and questions that arose in that domain of philosophy. I asked my newly made friends if they were religious; they both said they were devout Christians. I asked them if their faith had been a matter of being born into a devout family, and they both replied that while they had been born into churchgoing families, each had had an individual ‘experience’ that had cemented their faith, given it a new dimension, and indeed caused them to say they ‘found Christ’ only later in life–in each case, following a profound ‘crisis’ of one sort or the other. When Christ ‘had come’ to them, they had ‘felt’ it immediately, and had never had any doubt ‘in their hearts’ from that point on. I listened, fascinated. I made note of the fact that I taught an section on ‘religious experiences’ in my class, and mentioned William James and St. Teresa of Avila‘s theoretical and personal accounts of its phenomena.

When my new friends were done recounting the story of their journey to their faith, they asked me again if I was sure I wasn’t religious. I said that I was quite sure I had no theistic belief–even as I remained fascinated by religion as a social, cultural, psychological, and intellectual phenomena and by the nature of religious feeling–which is why, of course, I had inquired into the nature of their religious belief and how they came by their beliefs. In response, my friends said they were ‘relieved’ to hear of my attitude, that they frequently skirted the subject in conversation with ‘strangers’ because they didn’t want anyone to feel they were proselytizing; I assured them I didn’t think they were, and that I had found the conversation singularly illuminating.

We had driven on past the campground that was supposed to be our destination; our friends said they found our conversation worth continuing; they would drop us to Buena Vista. Rain clouds were still threatening, so this offer was most welcome. Soon, we found ourselves on Buena Vista’s Main Street, our destination for the day. We alighted, grabbed our backpacks, posed for a photograph or two, and then bade them farewell; I asked for their names, but did not write them down, and so have forgotten them. But not that conversation; there was a refreshing warmth and openness on display that was refreshing, and in the context of the US and its endless ‘religious wars,’ a genuine sense of novelty.

Colorado Notes – IV: The Outdoor Act That Dare Not Speak Its Name

Apparently bears shit in the woods.¹ What about hikers? Forget about ‘going’ in outer space. How do you ‘go’ in the great outdoors? The answer to this question scares many off from overnight camping, sending them back to the safety of the trailhead, the car, and then, onwards to modern civilization’s greatest achievement: the indoor toilet, complete with flushing system, toilet paper rolls, liquid soap dispensers, and towels. There’s no getting away from it: the call of nature must be answered, even if in the midst of, er, nature. Everyone poops; that fact does not go on vacation when you do.

And it ain’t straightforward, for the list of standards and guidelines to be followed are extensive, with conformance to them expected by all those you share the trail with: be discreet, sparing fellow campers a sight that cannot be unseen; stay away from water sources for those who transmit E coli to drinking sources are condemned to damnation; dig holes with a shovel for disposal of waste; do not use non-biodegradable wipes, otherwise, you need to pack it out (yes, pack it all out).  The physical requirements are equally onerous: deep squatting is a physical movement that makes many of us uncomfortable, but until Portosans start dotting the landscape–a fate too grim to comprehend–it is the only way to facilitate you-know-what. In ever so slightly buggy environments, some protective hand waving is required as well, up top and down below. (I cast my mind, ruefully, back to some New Zealand experiences involving sand flies; my rear end complained for several days afterwards.)

Morning rituals at camp are mostly uncomfortable and bothersome; stiff and sore bodies roll out of damp tents to pack up and get moving; the trip to the ‘outhouse’ is an important component therein. The dread that precedes it is, however, matched, if not surpassed by the almost euphoric sensation that follows its completion: body, mind, and step lightened, the hiker is ready to face the trail, its challenges suddenly less onerous. Cover on the trail is always harder to find; better to get things out of the way and set off with a clean slate (among other things.) Feel that skip in your step? You won’t if you don’t lighten up. Literally.

Despite my knowing tone above, I’m not an expert yet in the fine arts of outdoor pooping. And neither have I yet won mastery over the anxiety and angst that envelops the conception and execution of the act. My only consolation is the anticipation of that much-awaited–if stiff and painful to begin with–standing up and walking back to campsite with a huge grin on my face, now suddenly prepared to hoist those recalcitrant forty pounds or so on my back and get walking. With thoughts of next morning’s anticipated deeds held in abeyance.

Note #1: So I’m told. I’ve never seen one, nor have I ever come across any photographic or video evidence to this effect. Testimonial evidence and all that.

Colorado Notes – III: Solo Hiking As Novelty

I’ve always struggled to understand the solo hiker. Walking alone in the wilderness suggested a journey suffused with equal parts boredom and fear: no one to point to a sight seen along the way, no one to seek refuge with in case of danger. (These considerations apply to travel in general in my case: I’ve traveled alone, but have always preferred to do so in company.) But those who walk along wilderness trails with no one to keep them company have clearly overcome these challenges that seemed insuperable to me; they’ve clearly figured out something I haven’t. They’d figured out how to find solitude, not loneliness, on the trail. On my recent Colorado trip, once my original plans for hiking the Collegiate West section of the Colorado Trail had been derailed, I had resolved to hike from Cottonwood Pass  to Tincup Pass Road, supposedly the most beautiful section of the trail segment, as a partial consolation. I tried to arrange company for the hike–a sixteen mile day-hike which would require a very early start to avoid any of the Rockies’ usual afternoon thunderstorms–but those plans fell through. I would have to hike this segment alone if I wanted to do it.

Let’s face it: I’m a pretty anxious, easily panicked person; I am terrified of being lost; momentary losses of orientation easily trigger ominous internal losses of self-control. I’m not your ideal solo hiker. But I was desperate to hike this section–one that had little camping cover and which would require scurrying down and away from its exposed ridgelines in case thunder and lightning threatened. The mind of the anxious is not easily tamed though, and I effortlessly conjured up one desperate situation after another: what if I sprained an ankle and was unable to walk? Eh? What then? I arranged for a ride, even as it seemed to me that the rendezvous I was arranging at night for a pick-up seemed a little tentative and might easily, on failing, cause me considerable inconvenience and perhaps even place me in some danger.

As you can tell, I was one reluctant adventurer. But I was a disappointed one, still smarting over the derailment of my original plans to hike the Collegiate West. So I gulped and resolved to wake early and set off alone. It was the most minor of decisions in one sense: all I was planning to do was wake up early and go for a longish walk–in the mountains. But knowing what I knew about myself, it wasn’t.

I set off at six in the morning, shivering just a little from the cold wind that raked Cottonwood Pass. The sun greeted my presence on the trail quickly, warming me up, and firming my resolve further. At Sanford Saddle on the Continental Divide, a black bear, sprinting downhill, induced some momentary apprehension but that emotion quickly gave way to gratitude for being lucky enough to witness such a spectacular sight. A little later, I met a thru-hiker who turned out to be great company; we hiked together for the rest of the segment, bidding each other farewell as he continued on from Tincup Pass Road. I wasn’t hiking solo anymore but the challenge had been met: I had set off solo. The hike was as beautiful as promised; I would have been a fool to have missed out on it.

More importantly, of course, I had partially mastered an old fear. And I had done it in the oldest ‘proving ground’ of all: the wilderness.

Colorado Notes – I: The People You Meet On The Trail

It’s almost a cliche, I suppose: hiker returns from a trip from to vale, glen, mountain, and stream, with tales of folks met on the trail, their idiosyncratic characters, their inspirational accounts, their quirky characteristics, their reminder that the world is full of interesting and distinctive people, that, strangely and ironically enough you can leave a bustling city full of strangers standing cheek to jowl with you, and on entering a stark wilderness, meet people who in the space of a few brief hours can become companions and something approaching friends too. But cliches become so because of the hint of truth they contain. And so, because stories of how interesting people can be should occasionally turn out to be true–on pain of this being too tedious a world otherwise–I can report to you with some relief on my return from travels on some trails in Colorado that these kinds of stories are indeed genuine glimpses of the pleasurable varieties that mankind can provide for us.

Last week, during a brief jaunt on the Colorado Trail‘s Collegiate West section, I met: a retired couple from San Francisco thru-hiking to Durango from Denver who breezed past us effortlessly on the way to the top of a high pass, pointed us to a very good campsite, and dispensed some useful advice on how to pack lighter the next time; a young woman who had hiked the Appalachian Trail whose Army husband in Colorado Springs periodically–and perhaps redundantly–exhorted her to not give up as she moved solo, with her dog, on this new trail; a young woman who had hiked the Pacific Crest Trail; a pair of women hikers from Arkansas (one had done the John Muir Trail); a Christian architect from Mississippi (we talked theology, Heidegger, existentialism on several ridge-tops); experienced trail runners of all sexes, shapes, and sizes. They were all inspirational in their own way: from them I gleaned much wisdom.

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There were tales of how to ‘keep at it’ on the trail; the importance of riding out the first seventy-two hours; camping tips and tricks; stories of survival and fear and joy but much more importantly, I learned a bit about just how many different kinds of strivings and motivations there are out there. The trail is a good place to remind us that the world of people and the world of the wild is endlessly varied with its very own onion-peel characteristics; the trail and its accompanying wilderness can do a good job of peeling off our own layers. Hikers go on the trail for many reasons; no two will furnish exactly the same set when asked why they set themselves to walking in the wild. Sometimes they do it to see distant things; sometimes they do it to look much closer, at themselves. The people we meet on the trail don’t just inform us about themselves when they talk with us in the wild; they hold a mirror up to us as well. As we look at them, we see a bit of ourselves, and thus come to know ourselves a bit better too.

Next: A post on the many acts of kindness that sustained me on my travels.