October 16, 2008

The annual pilgrimage, 2008

Got back last night from this year's trip out to Cumberland, MD, which is something I look forward to all year long. The fact that I have such high expectations for the trip created issues this year and gave me a whole lotta thinking to do. Lessons in dukkha and attachment are, of course, never easy.

I wrote last year about the indulgent way that I always begin the pilgrimage-- a massage at The Bath House in Berkeley Springs, WV, and the scrumptious (cheesy word but, damn, it's appropriate in this case) snow crab legs at the Texas Grillhouse in LaVale, MD. Added a slight twist this year in having a hot stone massage for the first time. I honestly don't know how I've lived this long without the sublime feeling of hot river stones slipped between my toes. First time I've ever blissed out enough to fall asleep during a massage.

So far, so good. Things started out just as wonderfully relaxing as usual. Monday began well, also. It was chilly overnight, and morning revealed a thick mist rising along the Potomac River and Tom's Creek between town and the surrounding mountains.

The day's plan was to drive over to Garrett County and ride a trail that runs between Herrington Manor and Swallow Falls state parks. I headed out fairly early to explore a new road before breakfast, and ended up driving all the way to Keyser, WV. I was hungry by the time I got there and began the hunt for any place besides McD's or Burger King at which to chow down. Passed a sign for The Candlewyck Inn that included the words "fine dining" and pulled in to check it out. Turns out they don't serve breakfast on weekdays, but that didn't stop the owner from offering to cook something for me. I ended up with a wonderful veggie omelet and home fries, and a pleasant conversation about the perils of small-town restaurant ownership. He also tipped me off to a shortcut from Keyser to my intended destination and within less than an hour I was passing through Oakland, MD, on my way to Herrington Manor to get my ass kicked.

I have no mountain biking skills to speak of, and I ride a rigid cyclocross bike. But a few very fun rides through the kiddy roller coaster that is the main trail at Rosaryville State Park made me confident enough to tackle this trail that is rated as "beginner". A guy working in the park office also confirmed that there was "one short rocky section", but that the rest was pretty easy. That "one short rocky section" that he pointed out on the map apparently grew significantly before I hit the trail. It was rocky from the freaking get-go, and I'm talking rocks ranging in size from dinner rolls to full loaves of bread. I bucked and bounced for two miles before deciding I was risking busting either my fork or my head, then turned around and hike-a-biked it through the worst sections on the way back. But I wasn't ready to give up just yet, so I loaded the bike back on top of the car and headed to the other end of the trail at Swallow Falls to see if perhaps that was the easy part.

It started out being fairly lovely, much smoother, swooping through hardwood forest and then descending quickly into hemlock groves. But then, rocks. And not only rocks. Big, freaking, tangled hemlock roots. This ride was nothing if not a lesson in why bicycle suspension was invented. If I'd had a bike properly designed for this type of trail, with full-on double suspension, I could have had a major blast. As it is, I think my cervical and thoracic vertebrae have fused into one great big hunk of bone, the thoravical. My chiropractor's got his work cut out for him at our next appointment.

The trail heads up through those tree roots on the left

The best section of all (again, the trail's on the left)

After another roughly two miles of torture I gave it up for good, again walking the bike through the most stone-choked sections. It was frustrating to quit with so few miles under my wheels, but I have to admit I'm fairly proud that I handled the bike so well on the portions I did ride. I was able to remain relaxed enough to let the wheels bounce over the rocks without bucking me off, and I picked up some decent speed on the smooth sections. Certainly a worthwhile experience, despite the discomfort.

And then things took a turn. This year's pilgrimage is notable in that it's the first time in eleven years that I chose to spend part of it with people I know. The ladies with whom I ride had planned a five day thru-ride of the C&O Canal. When the idea first came up months ago, it sounded like it could be lots of fun. For a variety of reasons, though, I decided against it. But I planned my trip for the same week with the intention of joining them for one of the most interesting sections of the towpath, the Paw Paw Tunnel. As a result, this particular pilgrimage ended up less time- and care-free than usual. Having to plan and schedule and interact with others added a hectic element and made the time spent with them turn into the focus of the trip, when it should have been just one enjoyable portion of the whole. Leading up to this day, I questioned a few times why I'd made this decision. I was sure that it would be fun and would further develop my friendships with these women, but it's counter to the purpose of the pilgrimage.

The plan had been for a pleasant mid-day ride with my buddies, 25 miles or so at an easy pace that would serve as a recovery from the beating the day before, with the fun of Paw Paw Tunnel as the centerpiece, and ending up having a lovely dinner by myself in Cumberland.

It turned into me riding alone down to (during which time I snapped the pics above) and through the tunnel, meeting my friends on the way back, then exerting myself pretty damned close to my physical limit, driving 60 miles that I hadn't planned on, and not getting back to the hotel and a shower until after 9:00pm. Dinner was with the gang at Bill's Place in Little Orleans, but consisted of a surprisingly good $3 bowl of lima bean soup.

This unexpected deviation from the usual course of pilgrimage events left me ping-ponging between concern and compassion on one hand, and resentment on the other. The bitterness I felt (am still somewhat feeling) over what happened is certainly not very Buddhist of me. But I wasn't able to obtain the peace of mind and quiet reflection that I so look forward to during this annual trip. The time I spend alone out there is time in which my mind can empty of all the responsibilities and issues and neuroses (my own, mostly) that I find to be part and parcel of every human relationship in my life. It allows the same freedom I experience when I escape to the woods, or onto the bike, or cruising country roads in the car, but for an extended period of time that creates a deeper rejuvenation and euphoria.

The fourth day out there, my last, didn't serve to improve the situation. The morning began not with curling mists rising in front of the mountains, but with totally grey, overcast skies. After breakfast at a favorite coffee shop up in Frostburg, I decided to just head home. Along the way, I was pulled over by a cop for doing 83 in a 65. Despite ending up with a warning instead of points and a fine, this was like insult (deserved, I know) added to injury.

I could have considered all of this some perverse "reward" for yesterday's good deed, but it wasn't. It was just weather patterns and not paying enough attention for radar traps. And yesterday's strained afternoon and evening were just a case of doing what needed to be done in response to an unexpected situation. The events and atmosphere that we find ourselves dealing with are not rewards or punishments. Nor are they good or bad luck. They are just what is. What creates the difficulty is how we classify and respond to them. My first response (after attempts to squelch my resentment) was to wonder how expectation fits into a Buddhist lifestyle. What the hell is the trick to looking forward to something with pleasant anticipation, without forming an attachment to the resultant expectations?

The conclusion I came to is that it's a matter of control. My desire for escape from schedules and responsibility, my craving for the freedom I feel during those escapes, isn't freedom at all. It's an attempt at control. Doing what I want to do when I want to do it, being impulsive or indulgent as I see fit, is just control in a different form. It feels like freedom, but isn't it really just enslavement to a need to feel that I'm calling the shots, instead of squeezing my life into the jigsaw puzzle of work, commuting, home ownership, family, and friendships? And it's my disinclination to give up that control that caused resentment to override the concern I felt for my friend. That's one of the hardest things about following the Buddhist path-- having to relinquish all sense of control and deal with things as they are, learning to want something yet being able to live with not getting it, developing the ability to gracefully flow with the alternatingly pleasant or painful stream of life. It's kind of like riding tricky singletrack. Ya gotta let go and relax enough to let the bike pick its own line through the rocks and enjoy the ride despite any bruises you end up with.

And that's enough of the philosophical mumbo-jumbo. Despite the lesson learned, I headed out today for one of those temporary escapes and cruised the back roads of West Va up to Shaharazade's. Lunch was great and the drive was great, but by far the brightest spot so far this week has been one brief moment this afternoon when I drove past the spot of the burned-down trailer (described here and, later, here). I had noticed on a similar drive several weeks ago that a new trailer had been installed on the lot. Today, as I was coming around the curve leading up to it, I noticed a basketball lying on the ground next to the basketball hoop that's been standing in the same spot along the road ever since I first saw the place. And, strolling across the yard, the same tow-headed kid I'd managed to avoid running down almost a year ago. The sun gleaming off his blond hair and the hand he raised in a wave gave me the biggest smile I've had on my face in many days. If I didn't know better, I'd almost consider it a reward.


Groover said...

Beautiful photographs. I like your analogy of life being like riding a single track.

Stargazerleo said...

Hmmm, expectation is a tricky thing. Sounds like even though you planned to spend time with friends, it definitely was a source of contention for you all along. I have no particular advice, although I certainly understand the appeal of quiet time, something I may mention in my next blog. One thing I have learned to do, when I know I have a hectic day ahead of me, is set my intention for the day. the moment I wake up. I at least start the day with the right attitude and can sometimes better deal with something unexpected being thrown my way. What happened that you didn't get to ride with your friends?

Other than that, your pics are gorgeous. I always think of North Carolina or Tennessee for east coast mountains, and I forget about Md.

KaliDurga said...

It's one thing for you to forget Md's mountains, but a real shame that you forget Pa! Fayette Cty's full of gorgeous mountains and forests. Tsk, tsk ;)