We pulled off the highway toward the smaller roads that would lead us to our hike, me and the boss, headed to climb Big Schloss and camp the night. My boss, driving, a Cooper Mini, his lab in the back with our backpacks, had forgotten his German fitness rye bread, and the same kind of bread I had brought had been made into almond butter sandwiches, which would not work anyway with dinner and cheese in his French habits. Up we came the off-ramp, stopping, turning left, rolling past the fast food restaurants on either side, the Seven Eleven, Sheetz, another gas station, a Tractor Supply in the distance, and I look at the tiny map on my iPhone and see there is a Food Lion up ahead, not far at all. A chance to get more water and use the bathroom before being out in nature for an overnight and the hike out. He looked through the bread aisle, not finding anything impressing, and I thought maybe, like the local Safeway here, such an item would be in the ethnic food category, a small slice of Germany between Asia and Latin America somewhere, to quickly find that there was no German nor a Kosher section. I remember the call of nature and met him going through the checkout.
We drove back up over the highway bridge of Route 81. He looked forward. "Look. They are all here. These are the only options people have out here." Burger King. McDonalds. Taco Bell. KFC. Pizza Hut. The familiar colorful rooftop logos provoking habitual hunger in need of quenching, who wants a thick brick of "Fitness Bread"... Not the healthiest, but the money makers. As a restaurateur, this is interesting to his eye. And I feel the same way, food as health, and look at the poor diet Americans do to themselves, the fix of dough and sugar, the combinations and choices that lead directly to obesity. I know myself I must avoid the mainstream, conscious selections to avoid inflammation of joint and gut and breathing passages. For much of the drive we have discussed yoga routines, mainly his at Down Dog Yoga Studios. At one point back up the road he expressed how he would like to find a formula for a restaurant, duplicatable, not reliant on the tastes of a chef, a new one to change routines as twenty year old restaurants have developed, expected by the customers as old comforts and dishes loyal to the tradition.
We drive on, the road getting smaller and winding over the rolling hills, farmland, rustic houses, and on into small hollows with a stream running along the road, and then we turn off into the timber, and down onto a gravel fire road which leads to a small parking lot by another stream from where we will set out, up the cut-off trail to the ridge, and then up to Big Schloss. "We are going to be in the clouds tonight." And I smile, happy with my new trekking poles as I follow him up the trail. The dog is carrying two cans of beer of an unspecified kind (though not Guinness) along with his own food, and I have pouch with a decent bottle of Chiroubles poured into it to go with the camp dinner of duck confit and white bean stew my boss has in his backpack. The forest is wet, and up atop the ridge, there is a fog, and when we climb upward the limestone castle outcrop is hidden in cloud. The conditions will make the gathering of wood for a fire not much worth the damp effort, and I am wishing maybe I brought the warmer rather than the lighter mummy bag to sleep in on my inaugural night in my new REI tent.
My boss comes and helps me with figuring out the rain fly, staking it down here at the top between the slabs of rock on a bed of pine needles of the trees brave enough for the ridge, and then he heats dinner in the single pot stove a mountain climber would use for lightness and efficiency. My one, the old Svea Optimus, a classic and good for the fabled high altitudes, is tricker to light than the push of a button as the newer models. The tall boy Budweisers empty, my attempt to gather dry sticks and leaves from underneath layers of rock, cautious for little inhabitants as I collect dry wood, not resulting in much of a fire, but for a few minutes of smoke and an ember as I blow, we squat down on our rocks for dinner underneath a tree. And from our overlook over the valley, there is nothing but clouds, and the wind is picking up and the spit of rain along with it.
We talk about the boss taking the younger manager from the other restaurant to a yoga class, and being formerly a dancer, T. "did okay." Cool. But we all have blocks, blocks from our upbringing, and whenever you lead people you have to make them respect you. And people will always wag their tongues and grouse about management, and you can't, as a good boss, listen to all that, but really tell them what to do. I nod at this lesson. The boss has just told a great story as we drove up the timber road as the tires crunch about taking his wife to dinner for her birthday at the fancy new Fiola Mare and the failures of management there to bring forth a smooth night worthy of the time. There is another good lesson in the story of the departed manager, who seems really to have taken a typical punch-the-clock uninspired American attitude toward the noble business of hospitality and making people happy.
It is still light out, the boss offers me a slice of Beaufort cheese, the cloud we're in seems thicker and wetter and moving more, and then it's time to turn in. "I'm cold." "Me too." I take a walk out to the ridge, crossing the nifty sturdy wooden footbridge, to the edge, and with darkness falling and wind's power on me, my plastic cup in one hand still with some Beaujolais in it, it is a good idea to retreat now to the tent, take off wet clothes, hope my bag will be warm enough and try to rest my way into a decent sleep. The wind howls, and I think of the account of Edmund Hillary up on Camp Nine perched against the rock and how the winds of Everest must indeed be unimaginably frightening, sleeping upright, back against the wall before the final summit attempt.
The night is taken as survival, windy as it is. I pull my mummy bag, rated to 45 degrees, tight so I'm just able to breathe, pull the wet windbreaker over me as a blanket--it helps--and will not remember sleeping much, getting up once at 12:30 with a real undeniable need to pee, and then, why not, hang my dungarees, socks and underwear over a mountain laurel, before tucking back in to hide way the remainder of the night. Soon, as it grows light out, a feathered creature makes a continuous two-note announcement of sunrise after the night, no bears have come, and finally I hear my name called in the morning air, okay. I cough up some phlegm, and step, bottom half naked except for my running shoes to retrieve my pants and underwear and socks, which in the wind have reasonably dried except for the thicker pair of socks. The sky is blue, and the valley below has a green blanket over all its littler ridges of fresh trees and there are turkey vultures sailing at equal height to ours and my boss is sitting in lotus position facing the sun looking down into a book.
In the morning, after the struggles of the night, the dog having shivered through it, we are allowed a deep conversation about the transformations yoga and meditation allows. Not one for organized religion the boss tells me a bit of his family history, how his ancestors held out in a mountaintop castle in Mazamet in the Languedoc as the Catholics persecuted contrary minds, burnt people at the stake, massacred the town of Bezier, pursued the good people of this the Cathar country who had their mountain top holdouts in several areas here in the South of France. I have ancestors, too, who seemed to have been Huguenots. The book he is reading notes of how three billion people have to get by on less than two dollars a day. He offers me some of his Souchang Tea, which I accept gladly in my little metal stove cup, giving it a quick rinse and wipe remembering the dog licking the remainder of dinner from its sides, the leaves resting at the bottom of the smoky dark tea. He also has some mango apple banana pureed smoothie, and some carrot juice too. And we continue our talk back and forth about the possibility of deeper human reality and of how to deal with the bad thoughts we all have. Compassion, compassion for the self, and I can say, yes, I've learned some of this in therapy.
And perhaps in the context of the Cathars and the Huguenots and those who generally wish to avoid organized religion and their adolescent stages and growing pains, outwardly inflicted, serving people a decent healthy dinner and some good cheer with hospitality truly is noble.
I take the rain flap off the tent and hang it out to dry in the sun, and start to take apart the tent, trying to be efficient, and to get things cleaned up, the tent shaken out. The talk might have gone on longer, maybe I cut it off just a bit short.
We hike out. I follow him, this tall sturdy man who has done years of karate when time and restaurants allowed, who had to suffer four years without yoga because of a hamstring pull which needed the time, who has a lower heart rate than I, who exercises more than I do, and I have to keep it at a quick jog almost, my pole tips tacking tack tack tack against the rocks of the narrow trail.
There, finally, the road, and my calves I can sense will be tightening up pretty soon. In the car, we decide to follow a lead on a Buddhist monastery somewhere not far away, as we drive the back way down from Wolf Gap, through the trout stream pastured valley we've looked down upon, hearing dogs woof in the distance, seen the lights from houses and cars at night. One day maybe we will do a four day hike to circumambulate this valley, and it is gratifying to look left and see Big Schloss and even the wooden foot bridge above us.
The monastery, near Capon Springs, is a worthy stop. Our visit unplanned, a young monk, ordained two weeks before, gives us a placid little tour of the meditation hall, the greenhouse, the library, the room in which the abbot himself is seated lotus talking to a few folks, as we take turns keeping the dog from barking. He is concerned about the monastery's cat with the dog around, but reassured, lets us walk around up to the men's dormitory. Perhaps we might make a visit during a non-retreat period, stay overnight, meet the abbot of this Theravadan society.
And then we are back on 81, and then soon on to 66, following behind a group of four Harleys with leather jackets with "Legacy Vets" on the back. Traffic gets thick as we get closer in, then comes to a stop, an accident up ahead. Emergency vehicles clustered on the left side of the highway, the metro train conductor peering back from his open window, a woman beside a minivan facing a policeman, and looking back myself I catch a glimpse of what might be motorcycles lying on their sides. Further in I look out at all the town houses on the way and all the cars, and wonder how I'll ever afford real rent or real estate in this sprawling empire I do not neatly fit in to.
Dropped off quickly at East Falls Church I ride standing with my backpack to Foggy Bottom and walk home slowly, calling my mom along the way. But home is quiet and I am back, stuck in my strange situation, alone again. I take out the packed tent, the rain flap and the tent footprint and hang them over the clothesline to let them dry out. I have a piece of farmer's cheese, reheat a plain hamburger, eating it before it's even hot, and fall into a nap into which the snooze falls into the dream as a strange vibration like a nagging conscience, a sense of being unsettled.
I hobble out to the grocery store, Glen's, to restock, a roasted bird for dinner, green vegetables I will hopefully cook at some point, after protein needs are met, not much in the way of sweet potatoes but the ones the size of coastal stones. I grab a six of Guinness Extra Stout on the way home, to absorb the adventure, while Somm plays in the background, leaving me with no desire to be such.
My cold has returned as I wake in the morning. But it is nice to be up in the morning, as if the night and the sunny morning up on the ridge has returned me from the nocturnal pattern of winter and shifts and maybe too much wine at night back into a creature of the daylight. Hot water with lemon and green tea, as I write. I am still too much in recovery to have enthusiasm for my yoga routing.
And I think of how, as I absorb the boss man's wisdom, I failed at leadership, how I failed at a crucial time. For wanting to rise and be myself as an English major writing papers as I saw fit, giving them the time they needed, but this not being good for grades nor morale nor my guidance toward future professional activity of the appropriate sort, and of how this bled over onto a personal relationship I tried to lead, but utterly failing at it, leaving the two of us estranged, dissatisfied, an appropriate friendship of some kind between the sexes derailed and destroyed, left to nag me from the past in a repetitive way, and how much better if I'd actually been a leader, as a young man is supposed to be in these and all situations.
Maybe failure at leadership is one of those lessons that awaits one in life, that one steps toward, discovering some final inevitable obscurity, a sense of the uselessness of effort, and then the final retreat from public life and the pattern of the mainstream as well. And one is left merely to provide whatever insight or wisdom which might innately reside or come out of such unhappy lessons only in some passive way, as if one were, too, to be a kind of mountaintop monk such as grieving people might seek out from time to time.
The boss's lesson of the story of the man who saved the monks of a Shoalin Temple, by teaching them karate, and getting them into shape after their weakness and vulnerability to whatever marauders whim, sticks to the mind. And a bath is poured, with epsom salt, to ease calf muscles which have tightened to make walking awkward after my day of twenty thousand steps. The beginning of another journey, perhaps, hopefully.
That lesson, found in my own failure of leadership, a failure I must own, perhaps that is a lesson that has to be learned, sooner or later, in all lives. I found that I could not plant the seeds of any kind of real happiness outside the self, as much as I tried habitually to do that. I find now that one can only be happy finding a contentment within as one might come across without seeking it anywhere but in the present.