I first heard the word "circumambulation" in grad school, while reading some essay or other by Gary Snyder. I would've sworn that the essay came from his excellent collection The Practice of the Wild, but I've been flipping through it here for at least a half-hour and can't find the mention. It's possible it came from somewhere else: lots of the material I read and re-read and knew by heart during my dissertation work now lays in a disorganized, musty heap in a file cabinet in my office, a series of maps to a treasure that I found and have hopefully spent wisely, and not just forgotten.
If you speak a Latinate language (or, in the case of English, a mongrel Anglo-Norman language with some Latin influence), the literal meaning of "circumambulation" is probably pretty obvious: if you're circumambulating, you're walking in a circle. There's a bit more to the concept than the etymology alone suggests, though: if you've ever misplaced your keys or been betrayed by Google Maps while out on the town, for example, you've technically circumambulated, but in that context, at least, probably failed to find it to be an enriching experience.
Snyder uses this Latin word to describe something far more complex than simply walking in a circle, something that's been important to many spiritual and religious practices throughout time: circumambulation as a form of pilgrimage. I'm always a little loathe to link directly to Wikipedia (old habits die hard, I guess) but there's a good listing of various circumambulation rituals there if you're interested.
Gary Snyder was particularly interested in Buddhist employments of circumambulation, and in fact pioneered a circumambulation of Mount Tamalpais inspired by the Buddhist approach that is still undergone by hikers today in his honor. There are a few books out there about this, which I unfortunately haven't read yet, but hope to in the near future. I've only been to Mt. Tam (as it's known locally) once, and I didn't have time to circle the entire thing, but I did hike to the summit from near the bottom of the mountain, and found the experience oddly stirring. It's a strange, unique-looking place. I'm not surprised that Snyder was drawn to it.
Based on my very limited understanding of the Buddhist incarnation of circumambulation (called kora), the idea is that you perform a pilgrimage of sorts by circling a sacred shrine, a feature of the natural landscape, or even a person. You might only circle this sacred object (né) once, or you might do so many times. This helpful article speaks to the value of this tradition:
Kora is fundamentally simple. The practitioner is required to walk in a circle around a né. A pilgrim may chant mantra and hum prayers, count rosary beads and spin prayer wheels. It is common to repeatedly prostate oneself along the circumambulation path in hopes of achieving extra merit or blessing. The pathways of Kora are usually lined with windhorses, prayer wheels, cairns, and and strings of prayer flags. Bon pilgrims traditionally orbit in a counterclockwise direction, while Buddhists circumambulate the opposite way to emulate the sun. Kora can be preformed[sic] at any given time, but the Tibetan lunar calendar marks certain days as especially advantageous. These are the 8th, 10th, 15th, 25th and 30th days of each month.
Many types of objects can be né, but it's not unusual for landscape features in particular to be né (like, for example, Mount Kailash in the Himalayas, or Snyder's Mt. Tam). Here's Tibetpedia again:
From jutting peaks to crystalline confluences, gloomy caves to boulders, literally anywhere has the potential to be imbued with né. Practicing kora in these wild locations routinely requires traversing formidable distances and navigating treacherous terrain. Traditional beliefs[sic] is that the arduous nature of the ritual escalates the blessings received during the pilgrimage.
You probably see where I'm going with this.
As I've written about ad nauseum before, climbing Washington state's Mount Adams in 2011 kickstarted my obsession with mountaineering, an obsession that, nearly 150 peaks later, continues unabated...more or less. Whether it's age, or a loss of novelty, or both, I'm definitely less motivated to climb every mountain in sight now than I was a few years ago. Full disclosure, though: I did climb central Oregon's Mount Bachelor and northern California's Mount Eddy back-to-back last week, and climbed up to 13,600 feet on the east face of Mount Shasta before turning back due to the altitude the week before that...so I guess I haven't slowed down that much.
That said, I've always been a little ambivalent about the mental/theoretical dimensions of climbing mountains. I enjoy the mental and physical challenge of the climb, I love the stark beauty of the bigger mountains (especially the Cascade volcanoes), and yet there's something about climbing a mountain for the sake of summiting that seems to necessitate a conquest mentality, that implies that the point of the experience is to prove that you, a seemingly puny human, can succeed in the face of long odds, can haul yourself up an imposing face of rock, and in doing so can, in some sense, conquer feral nature. You sit at the peak as a king (or queen), surveying the wilderness that spreads out below you as your newly-staked domain.
And nothing could be further from how I try to view my relationship with the wilderness.*
What drives me back out into the wilderness time and time again isn't the thrill of a momentary victory in some ages-long battle between civilized man and savage nature, but the value of the perspective I gain from stepping about as far outside the bounds of civilization any of us can get these days.
In modern society, we are taught that we are the heroes of our own uniquely heroic stories. We get what we earn, supposedly, except for the things we already have, which we tell ourselves we deserved in the first place. Life is a quest for control, we're told: control over your health, your appearance, your emotions; control over what others think of you, over your place in the world; control over money, possessions, time; control over animals, sickness, the weather, space and place; control, sometimes, over family members, friends, lovers, even. Those who successfully exert the most control are the most successful.
Then you die, and the first thing you lose control of, moments later, is your bowels. Your body returns to the soil. The Old Testament God describes this like it's a punishment, sure, but he's also the most control-obsessed god I've ever come across, so I tend to take his perspective with a grain of salt.
Joking aside, I struggle constantly with this controlling impulse. I know it's an enculturated defense mechanism, but knowing I should stop doesn't mean that I can: if I can just keep the living room clean enough, if I can just collect enough money in my savings account, if I can just stop eating junk food...then I'll never die!
Okay, so I don't think any of us thinks that explicitly, but it's the underlying idea. Fear fuels our desire for control, and our desire for control fuels our fear. Indulging this impulse has been a driving force behind my issues with depression and anxiety since I was a teenager, at least.
Fortunately, the wilderness forces us to give up on this illusion, whether we want to or not. The real world, the world now lurking underneath civilization, doesn't care what we want. It's not "nature, red in tooth and claw," exactly, it's more..."us-agnostic." The real world is an animal world, and any importance you place on yourself beyond animal importance does not signify.
I find this incredibly helpful with regards to my sanity. On a good day, standing on top of a mountain isn't my human triumph over the savagery of chaotic nature; rather, it's a reminder of how incredibly small and insignificant my existence is against the backdrop of, well, everything. I might, for the moment, be a tiny speck at the top of a huge volcano, but I'm still a tiny speck, and it's more important that that feeling of "speck-ness" sticks with me than a sense of triumph or accomplishment.
Sitting at the top of a mountain and knowing that I still have to climb back down the way I came up helps with the humility, too.
I imagine, in these moments, that I feel a bit like a pilgrim on their kora, circling a né. And the more I'm able to cultivate that feeling through experience, the less I find myself drawn to the myth of control. And the less I try to control, the better I feel, the better I am.
Again, you probably see where I'm going with this.
I doubt I'll ever stop climbing mountains until my legs stop working, but in the last few years, I've come around on another practice that is in many ways similar, but is also importantly different: I'm talking, of course, about circumambulation.
In the summer of 2017, Lindsey and I hiked a fifty mile loop into, around, and back out of the gorgeous Wallowa Lakes Basin in eastern Oregon. Besides being an amazing backpacking trip on all counts and wonderful bonding experience, it made me appreciate the value of spending at least five days at a time on the trail, as opposed to a day or two. The quality of the experience just became...different somehow after the first two days. We've discussed this many times since, and it's probably a topic for another piece someday.
After that first trip, I also started thinking a lot about loops and cycles. It was a bit of a happy accident that the Wallowa hike ended up being a long loop, but I had been continually surprised throughout the experience how much that loop helped me build a mental map of the space of the wilderness around us, of its flora and fauna, and of our journey to, through, and out of the Basin: a journey that passed through so many varied landscapes, only to end back where we'd begun...mostly.
One memory that sticks with me was the feeling of trying to drive the car away from the trailhead and back into town: initially, my brain simply could not reckon with the idea of my body moving at forty-five miles per hour, and I nearly had to pull over to the shoulder while I adjusted to the speed. Same car, sure, but something had changed in me over those five days of walking. I had returned to where I'd begun, but it wasn't entirely a return; it was also an evolution of some kind. I wanted to do more loop hikes to become better acquainted with this particular quality of experience. The next one happened, a bit by accident, to be a loop around not just one mountain, but three.
The next summer, one of our backpacking trips was a circumambulation around the Three Sisters massif in the Central Cascades. Last summer, it was the Timberline Trail, which circles Mount Hood. I'll likely write about those hikes in detail later -- the Timberline hike in particular was an incredibly challenging and formative experience for me -- but suffice to say for now that the notion of circling mountains as an alternative to summiting them has become an important part of my experience of the wilderness over the last few years. Only recently did I begin to mentally connect this with Snyder's writings, kora, and né in a conscious way, while I've been sitting at home reading and thinking instead of driving around the west and backpacking, like I'd normally be doing this time of year.**
So imagine my surprise and excitement when, as I was skimming USGS quads and daydreaming about COVID-safe hikes that I could do this past weekend, I realized that by combining a few trails one could complete a circumambulation of Brown Mountain, a small shield volcano that lies a quick forty-five minute drive west from my house.
It was on, as the Tibetan pilgrims definitely do not say, like Donkey Kong.
Brown Mountain, despite its interesting geologic history, is not a particularly notable mountain. It's nestled between-ish the Mountain Lakes caldera and the towering mini-Hood of southern Oregon, Mount McLoughlin. It's relatively low in elevation, at 7,350 feet, which makes it difficult to pick out from the surrounding mountains and ridgelines unless you know what you're looking for (or are right on top of it). And, it's flanks are almost entirely medium-size, loose volcanic boulders, which means that there's no trail to the top. I scrambled to the summit on those rocks once back in the day (read: 2013), but I don't recommend it for safety reasons. That said, if you can get close to the mountain by car in the winter, it's a hell of a fun snowshoe to the top...just don't fall into any of the open and active volcanic vents on the way back down.
Brown Mountain is mostly known for the two trails that pass along below its north and east faces. Both are, I think, maintained by the local Klamath Trails Alliance (KTA) and are mostly frequented by bikers. The PCT passes below the mountain's west face, cutting through some spectacularly rocky terrain in the process, but most hikers, when they do exist on the mountain, are either just dayhiking that PCT length, or off on a much larger quest, of which Brown Mountain is barely even a part. Fortunately for me, these three trails form a rough circle that can take an intrepid hiker around the entire mountain, for the low, low, price of eighteen miles of walking and around 1,500 feet of elevation gain/loss.
When I announced my plan to circle the mountain in 18 miles to Lindsey on Friday, she immediately asked "Oh, so you'll be gone for two days, then?" to which I replied "Pfft." I guessed I could circle the mountain in about eight hours, give or take an hour, but it's hot this time of year in southern Oregon, even when you're starting your hike at 5,000 feet. So, I pulled off of Highway 140 at about 7:30am on Saturday, drove past the "correct" road to the trailhead because of a sign restricting car access (for some reason) in that direction, found the first flat patch of dirt off the shoulder I came to, and stopped the car there. I slapped away a few bugs, tied up my hiking shoes, and was on the move by 7:45am, looking forward to traveling trails that were almost entirely new to me, and coming to better appreciate the understated beauty of Brown Mountain in the process.
The first thing I'll say here is that the first few miles of the Brown Mountain trail, traveling north to south along the mountain's eastern shoulder, are absolutely beautiful. There were a ton of old growth trees throughout this section, and I found myself stopping more than once in the slanting, early-morning light to gawk at this or that tree in amazement. I certainly hadn't expected to find trees that huge and that old so close to the highway.
Generally speaking, the trail remained flat and easy to follow through this section. I only passed one other person, a mountain biker who warned me about bear sign (I didn't end up seeing any bears), and it was surprisingly cool in the shade, to the point that I considered putting on a second shirt layer. I would change my mind about this by 10am, when the sun got higher.
It was about 4.5 miles to the intersection with the PCT, and here I found a surprisingly open area and a pair of long-distance hikers. They were older ladies (I become increasingly hesitant to use the adjective "older" as I get closer and closer to forty myself), by their accents from England or somewhere else in western Europe. We chatted briefly, but they were just ending a break and I was looking to start one. They offered to let me go ahead so I wouldn't have to pass them later, but I'd seen them walk into the clearing: I am not afraid to admit that they were much faster than me. So, I urged them to go on ahead and I took a quick break before following them north on the PCT. My judgment wasn't wrong: they pulled ahead of me immediately, and I never saw them again.
The first mile or so along the PCT kept me in the old-growth forest, and almost immediately after the intersection I came across some huckleberry bushes. There were a few to pick, but most of them were still green little orbs, not ready to be eaten yet. Nonetheless, I walked for a mile or so with my hat in my hand, plucking the occasional berry and tossing it in: Lindsey loves huckleberries, and I thought it would be nice to take some home for her as a surprise. Soon, the trail headed up a bit and out of the trees, and I dumped the huckleberries into a plastic container I'd initially brought along for storing my lunch, for safekeeping.
A few years ago, I'd hiked a few miles of the PCT along the west side of Brown Mountain as a low-distance day hike, and I remembered that section of the trail -- which wound in and out of the huge piles of volcanic rock that make up the shoulders of the mountain -- as starkly beautiful, but also unrelentingly hot and dry. I was looking forward to revisiting that section of the trail, but hoped that it didn't end up making up too much of my overall distance along the PCT.
I did not get my wish.
Instead, I ended up walking about six miles that wound off and on through the lava-rock slopes of the mountain, and -- bad timing -- this portion of the hike ended up falling during the hottest part of the day. This wasn't a problem, particularly: I was well-hydrated and had packed more than enough water with me. But it did mean that I slowed down a bit through this section, partially because of the heat, and partially because I kept stopping to take in the eye-popping views of Mount McLoughlin looming to the north.
Considering that it's COVID Summer and all, the PCT was surprisingly full of people who were kitted out for some long-distance hiking. I didn't talk directly to many of them other than to exchange pleasantries, so I don't know if they were legit through-hiking the trail, or just doing a section or sections, but either way, it seems that there are a lot of hikers on the PCT in southern Oregon right now in the midst of long trips. We passed each other at an appropriate social distance in each case, and I continued on through the rockfields.
Despite all my running and mountaineering conditioning, hiking eighteen miles in one day is still a lot of mileage for me. Mentally factoring in the mid-July heat before my hike, I'd worried a bit about completing it comfortably, and in a reasonable amount of time. Fortunately, by the time I reached the PCT intersection with the High Lakes Trail, about fourteen miles through the loop, I was feeling a little sore, but otherwise fine. As I took stock of what was left in my pack, I was surprised to realize that I had only drank a little over one liter of water, and had eaten almost nothing, despite having brought three liters of water and at least 1,000 calories of food along with me. This struck me as odd at the time, but in retrospect, I think I had just overestimated how hard the hike was going to be.
For one thing, lava-rock sections aside, most of the loop around the mountain was much more forested (and thus shaded) than I'd expected. For another, the entire hike ended up only totalling 1,600 feet of elevation gain/loss: as I'm used to dealing with between 3,000 and 6,000 feet of gain/loss in a day, I'm sure this helped make it feel like a relatively relaxing hike. For a third, rather than taking my usual tack with long dayhikes and overpacking into my heavy and hot (but bombproof) Deuter ACT Trail 38 EL, I'd packed less than I thought I might need into my new Osprey Hikelite 32. The Deuter is actually designed for hikers with long torsos (like me!), and the Hikelite is not, so it fits me like pretty much every daypack on the market does: like a kid's bookbag hanging awkwardly off of an adult. But, with some strap adjustments, I can make it work really well for 10-15 pound loads, and its super-ventilated back panel is perfect for when you're, say, hiking eighteen miles around a volcano on a hot summer day.
Okay, so I'm not trying to do a commercial for Osprey here; I'm just saying that my gamble on choosing the lighter pack and thus also packing lighter than usual seemed to have really paid off.
From the intersection of the PCT and the High Lakes Trail, I turned east. I was both a little disappointed and a little relieved to find that this was less a "trail" and more of a "road," presumably to accommodate mountain bikers trying to join the east and west parts of the Brown Mountain Trail. Disappointed because who wants to hike on a road instead of a trail? Relieved because, to be honest, my feet were starting to hurt and the idea of finishing the last four miles of my circumambulation on a nice, relatively flat road didn't seem all bad.
The first bit of this trail paralleled Highway 140 closely, and pretty quickly led me to some more huckleberry bushes. I was going to pick from these, but a couple who was out for a hike with their dog beat me to it. We had a series of pleasant and increasingly hilarious conversations as we leapfrogged each other down the trail for about a mile, me ceding more huckleberries to them at each stop in exchange for opportunities to pet their dog. At one point, their dog followed me down the trail away from them for almost a quarter mile: at that point, they decided to turn around and head back westward to keep their overly friendly (and adorable) pup from following the wrong person home. We wished each other well, then I continued east.
The trail eventually opened back up into another lava-rock walk with more views of Mount McLoughlin, and took on a gentle downward slope that was only slightly spoiled by the mountain bikers screaming down the hill behind me, pushing me up into the rocks so that I could "let" them through.
And, then, on mile seventeen, I struck purple gold.
By which I mean that I finally found a stretch of unpicked bushes stuffed full of ripe huckleberries. I spent somewhere between fifteen and thirty minutes attacking these bushes, picking every berry I could find and stuffing them into my hat, drawing quizzical looks from some more passing bikers in the process. Then, treasure secured and safely stowed, I hiked the final mile back to the car through something approximating that primeval-seeming forest I'd hiked through over seven hours earlier on the mountain's east side, and that was that.
I ended up circling the mountain even faster than I'd expected, finishing after just under seven-and-a-half hours. And what did I learn, then, during my circumambulation? Well, it would certainly make for a better conclusion to this essay if I was able to disclose some heretofore unknown universal truth that came to me as I was shambling through fields of lava rock, under the punishing sun, but alas.
I'm increasingly coming to realize that that's not really how this works; at least, not most of the time. Realizations don't come like lightning from a clear blue sky, but instead like the fifth or tenth or fifteenth draft of the same song: things finally click because you've spent a long time laying the groundwork, finding and making incremental and often minuscule changes to your mindset and to the way you think about things, until you trigger a big enough change that it feels like a "sudden" revelation.
But, even if there's not one Takeaway to be had here, there are some takeaways.
For one, I was really struck by how often and how significantly the ecosystem changed around me as I circled the mountain. One of my favorite things about the other circumambulations that I've done -- and some of the mountain ascents I've done, too -- is watching the ecosystem change as you proceed through the miles and/or days of the hike. This is especially noticeable on hikes that gain and/or lose a lot of elevation over time: the natural world simply doesn't look the same at 11,000 feet, for example, as it does at 4,000 feet.
The Brown Mountain loop did not change elevation significantly; however, from the old growth forests on the east side, to the waist-high foliage growth on the south side, to the lava slopes of the west side, and finally through the new-growth trees and fruit bushes on the north side, circling the mountain felt like passing through an assortment of biomes. It was certainly my shortest circumambulation so far, at eighteen miles over one single day, but the experience still gave a sense of exposure to all the different facets of its personality that the mountain had to offer.
I also spent a lot of the hike thinking about speed. I wrote above about circumambulation as a way to escape the mental trap of climbing-as-accomplishment, and for me, that mindset most often sneaks in when I'm trying to summit a mountain, as it's an interaction with nature that has a very binary outcome: success/failure. On one hand, circumambulation avoids that kind of binary distillation, but throughout my hike around Brown Mountain, my brain kept jumping to a similar one: "How fast can I hike this loop?"
Thinking about speed started out as a purely practical matter: about how long will it take me to go around the mountain, and based on that, when do I have to get up in the morning, when do I have to be at the trailhead, to make sure that I finish before dark? Once I was on the trail, though, this question kept seeping into my mind in more insidious ways. Sure, if I could hike an eighteen mile loop in nine hours, that would be great. But wouldn't it be cooler if I could do it in eight hours? Wouldn't I be cooler if I could do it in eight hours? What about seven?!
I'm sure that this was exacerbated by the fact that I hiked the entire loop with my GPS watch on my wrist, a thing that I don't normally do, but was doing for this hike to make sure that I got an exact mileage for the whole loop by the end. I kept looking at the damn thing every few minutes during the first few miles of the hike, gauging whether or not I would be able to keep a quick enough pace to finish with a final time that would Make Me Awesome At Hiking And As A Person.
Fortunately, nature itself (herself?) ultimately got me to slow down and focus on where I was, rather than how fast I was passing through it. All the early stops to gawk at the old growth trees slowed me down. The first stop for huckleberries slowed me down. Talking to the ladies at the PCT intersection slowed me down. Going off-trail to find weird wildflowers to photograph for Lindsey slowed me down. Hanging out with that couple and their cool dog slowed me down. And, definitively, stopping to gather that last hatful of huckleberries stopped me from finishing the hike in under seven hours; which, had I done it, probably would have felt like a great accomplishment. But in the end I didn't care, because those were all much more meaningful experiences than finishing my exercise by some arbitrary deadline meant to prove to myself and my friends on social media how tough I am.
That "realization" sounds paltry and rote when I write it down like that, and maybe, when written, it is. But I can tell you that living it, feeling the difference between allowing myself to get drawn into the experience of circling the mountain and absorbing all that it had to offer instead of rushing past it all to get to some imaginary finish line, felt really, really good and really, really important. And I'm glad I did it that way.
I guess that's the closest thing to an epiphany I have to offer you at the end of this piece. It's more than enough for me.
Thanks, I hope you enjoyed reading if you made it this far.
Oh, and all those huckleberries? Well, suffice to say that they went over well...
* Of course, as a person who is in many ways connected to modern society, I necessarily have an adversarial relationship to the natural world on a lot of levels. I'm not unaware of this; it's just a topic for another day (and another, and another...).
**This summer, pre-COVID, I'd hoped to get a permit for the Wonderland Trail, a ninety-mile trek around the base of Mount Rainier, and I'd also planned to hike the Loowit Trail, a punishing thirty-miler that leads you around what's left of Mount Saint Helens. Maybe next year.