I was born in California, as Mark Twain might have said, at an early age. In 1970, in my early midlife, I moved with my family to serve a church in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Our three children have stayed in New England since. Nancy and I returned to Berkeley, California, in 1984 for an eight-year ministry and in 1992 I accepted a call to Woodfords Church in Portland. Grandchildren and New England beckoned. Our plan is to live out the remainder of our lives in Maine.
In Massachusetts, we were identified as “Californians” which is natives’ way of saying “from away.” In Maine we are welcomed but are and always will be “from away.” I understand. It has to do with place, particularly the place where one was born and grew up. That “place” imprints itself on our psyche, is an integral part of our identity. Redwood trees are holy to me. I love the Maine coast but it was not in my mother’s milk.
I have found that significant spiritual experiences imprint themselves on our souls in similar ways. The places of our births, be they physical or spiritual, are not forgotten, even more, their power lives on in us. These are our holy places.
Such a place for me is a 6-foot-by-20-foot bonsai-like level rectangle of decomposed granite sand with weather-stunted lodge pole pines on one side that slants across an 11,000-foot mountain ridge. The ridge is the remnant of an ancient glacier, a cirque glacier, that circles Cathedral Lake in California’s central Sierra Nevada range. I experienced an epiphany there, a spiritual awakening. It is a holy place to me.
For reasons I do and don’t understand, I wanted, maybe even needed to visit that high mountain holy place one more time in my life. So this July, with my youngest daughter, Jan, an ordained UCC minister, her husband, Ron, and a dear friend Tom, with whom I have adventured in the High Sierras many times over the past 50 years, I found my way to Blackcap Basin in the central Sierra Nevada range of California.
My aging knees and an ailing Achilles tendon suggested that riding horses in – 10 hours – and hiking out – two days – was the best idea we could afford. I agreed to foot a good deal of the cost of the horse ride in, if my companions carried a good deal of the load out. The deal was made.
Here are some excerpts from my log:
• 7/11 – Arrived at Portal Lake, 10,200 feet at 6:30 p.m. after what was a long hard ride for this tinhorn who was tired and sore.
• 7/12 – We woke to a beautiful day and setting. Frost on the ground. Great breakfast of fresh eggs scrambled, ample bacon for all, fried potatoes and Starbuck’s Italian roast coffee. I’m feeling tired in the altitude and having second thoughts about the whole trip – Wise? Foolish? Whatever, we set out for the ridge after lunch. Challenging but my hiking pole was a great help along with allowing myself rest stops. Once on the ridge, which still called for hand over hand climbing, we moved across it to our left in search of the “spot.” It was further along the crest than I remembered. Other somewhat similar spaces present themselves but none quite as large, as flat or as scenic. Jan, who visited the spot with me 15 years earlier, was leading our line and stopped, saying, “Dad, I think this is it.” It was and a great joy was shared.
Jan, Ron and Tom climbed other rocks on the ridge while I remained on the “holy ground” resting and ruminating. At 5:30 we shared a cold dinner before which Ron asked me to retell the story of my first visit there and the mystical experience. They had heard it before but hearing it in the setting, which was very much a part of the epiphany, justified the retelling. After dinner and sharing, Jan and Ron returned to base camp and Tom and I set out our tarp and sleeping bags, settling in for the night, sharing philosophical reflections and exchanges of friendship. It was a good night’s sleep without mystical dreams.
What I found again up there was beauty all around – power, vastness, quiet, change that is constant yet mostly imperceptible. There is much largeness and smallness in the mountains and life in and through it all. The place is holy ground for me but being there with Jan, Ron and Tom to share the story from years ago and the wonder that is ever-present was the particular holiness this time.
Thirty years ago, I found profound and full dimensions of love – human, natural and astronomical – in the brutality and tenderness and the continuing birthing of life presented by the landscape. I realized the grace of God through all things as life and love find their ways in spite of and because of brutality and death. This time I didn’t expect to experience the mystical moment given to me before, even though it hides at the heart of all deep experiences of life and love. I did expect to find, and did find, the beauty of the landscape that is the fingerprint of God. I did expect, and did find love with my companions, love as great as the mountains and as unforgettable.
That may well be the last pack trip I take, at least the last into Blackcap Basin. It was hard work but more than worth it. Why was it important to me? As best I can tell now, and more may be revealed, it was important for me to get there again because it allowed me to pay respects to a holy place in my life and respects need to be paid.
Bill Gregory welcomes your thoughts and comments. His email address is: