Reflection A Moment of Stillness

Cloud Splitter

At the end of my life, I will remember this day; a day that I took a few moments to be still.

A Tuesday that was not just a box between two other boxes, on a calendar. Putting my finger down against the glossy, white paper my finger is a break-water between the tumultuous waves of the future and the placid stillness of the past.  A friend of mine set the path, and I left the way open.

Taking a break from the over-scheduled days of a busy work week, we planned to carry our lunches in a pack and travel to a place among the clouds.

Just a couple days before our trip my friend's wife was involved in a car accident. Thankfully no one was severely injured, but the experience was not a pleasant one! The car-on the road in front of her-had run a red light, was struck by a large truck, and spun around full-circle smashing into her car's front.

So, here we were, a couple days later: two guys that usually take our road trips riding up high in the cab of a truck, riding near the ground in a small silver sedan; a rental car that we would never occupy again, embarking on a trip that would live on in memory... never to be duplicated. The "new car smell" put things into a more clear perspective for me that our routines are indeed not really routine, and that second-to-second none of our experiences are ever, really, duplicated. Though the events of our days often share common traits, no day, or trip, or experience is ever truly repeated. Each day is new.

As I looked the car over we began discussing plans for the day. We were both on tight timelines; having to be back to the city with enough time to pick-up our sons from school in the early afternoon. Still, the road stretched out generously in front of us, as the new day awakened in a colorful bouquet of possibility.

"Where do you want to go?" my friend asked taking a sip from his stainless, steel coffee cup-a quality in his voice framed the question as if we had all the time in the world.

"Let's make the hike out to Cloud Splitter." I followed, "Isn't that the place you mentioned we should go the next time we were out?"

And so, in 5 seconds we had formulated the full extent of our plan for the day:

We would hike out to a cliff face called 'Cloud Splitter'... a place far from being able to touch any actual clouds, but one of the highest elevations in the Red River Gorge; and a place that-I would come to find-has a great view of the clouds and a place where even on a calm day we would not have to stand still to feel wind against our faces.

In the stillness though, we would feel the wind in a different way.

Moving down the ramp, towards the Mountain Parkway, we could feel the wind pushing on the tiny sedan from its side and as we traveled east along a stretch of road that we both knew with overwhelming familiarity. Quietly I speculated-though, I never actually put words around it-that in that moment we were both reveling in our first few moments of true freedom in probably weeks. Life is so fast you often have to be speedily moving away from it, before the feeling of it sweeping past you leaves you free to consider it.

Each time we step out into these woods... the trees, the hills, and the clouds always remind me of the depths of their novelty-and in their stillness everything is made new.

The unplanned details of each trip are always the most treasured: the interesting strings of conversation, the ideas of grand epiphany, and the last-second: "How about we check this out real-quick?" Certainly, this trip offered no exception!!

Finishing our drive, we put miles-and-miles between us and the city as we started up a few strands of conversation. My friend-being a musician-we had often enjoyed discussing the inspiration for a few of his songs on our drives through the hills and the trees. On this particular trip my questions reached a bit further than usual: to the depths of his family heritage and came back around, to the surface, into some wild tale-of-a-song that he had written in his younger years, inspired by a young, adolescent adventure in which he "left his home in a terrible way". A few of the verses of his song had me grinning ear-to-ear shaking my head at the memory of some of the things I had done.

We were all a little wild once... were we not? I found myself thinking, as his crazy story continued.

There is definitely some untamed part in the youth of our souls... and into the wilderness my friend and I were now returning. The energy of youth and the raw vigor that we find in nature have their roots in the same, fertile ground.

My friend had a great idea for this relatively "warm" day in January-the river still ice-cold (by any standard.) So, up over the hill he sent me with two green, glass bottles in hand. I placed a couple Kentucky soft drinks down into the cool of the river bank; setting them up next to a tree branch emerging from the river silt. I twisted them by their bottle necks back-and-forth anchoring them down into the silt (so that they would not be carried off downstream), and then positioned another branch to run along the front and hem them in. Then, turning back to the steepness of the riverbank, I carefully picked my steps away from the mud streaks that had just about shot me down face-first into to water... and worked my way back up over the rise.

"Those will go down quite smoothly after our return hike." My friend commented, as I crested the hill and stopped short of the gravel parking lot. I breathed into my nostrils the fresh, crisp air and closed my eyes... feeling the absolute freedom of not being behind a desk working, on a day when I was supposed to be behind a desk working. I felt a few pounds lighter in weight, in spite of the back-pack that I pulled from the trunk of the car and up around the curve of my shoulder-surely the back-pack weighed at least as much as my laptop bag, but it certainly didn't seem so.

Crossing the gravel lot and leaving the trail head we hiked down along the river and both marveled at how green the water appeared on this January day; how green the river looked in the deeper pools... while the shallows took on the brownish tint of the river bottom below. I wasted no time turning our conversation, bending it right along with the river-as we had much more to discuss-and asking how "the book" was going. In addition to his musical talents, my friend has written a few plays... and has been working on writing his first novel.

Snapping a few pictures of my author friend down by the river side (or often times starring out into the distance of some breathtakingly beautiful, scenic overlook) it has been my typical joke that I have just captured the "perfect image" for his book cover!

My friend did give me some "Photo Cred" for the Christmas card that he sent of his family this past year-even if the photo credit was only handwritten onto the card that was addressed to my family alone! Ha!! This is the way friendships are supposed to be: lots of laughs but with the wholeness of sincerity too, adding a brilliance of color that will always surprise you and in the presence of true friendships it is easy to believe that the most unimaginable things are simply: possible.

I am nowhere near as ambitious as my friend, but all the while as we have been walking I turn over-and-over in my head what my next writing projects will be. I do tell him a few of the ideas that I have perculating; but the rest are locked away in the depths, and for a short time there is a bit of silence, that we both entertain; where not a word is being said.

For a few minutes the "quiet" sounds of the natural world wash over us; and they infuse our spirits with the healing of non-agenda. My friend and I have become travelers, but travelers that get only small glimpses of where we may be going.

After moving past the quiet, and those few moments of my consideration of "what our journey may be all about," I try to remember a quote and share a snippet from a podcast that I had recently listened to; words from an interview with author, Pico Iyer; an author that I have made plans to read more of in the coming year. Pico is a writer with a strong sentiment, and his most recent publication explores the mystery of stillness:

"Now, the great adventure is the inner world."

"Anybody who travels knows that you're not really doing so to move around; you're traveling in order to be moved. And really what you are seeing is not just the Grand Canyon or The Great Wall, but some moods, or intimations, or places inside yourself that you never ordinarily see when you're sleepwalking through your daily life."  [1]

Following my comment, our "navigator" sends me on an excursion up a trail that forks to our left, away from the stream that we had run up against and then up along-side the foundations of a cliff face reaching far above. This path-I eventually discover-comes around the rise and back across and down more challenging terrain, to meet back up with the very same stream. This put me right, back behind my friend who had continued down the main trail; knowing that I eventually would catch-up.

Only a few minutes later, as I looked up from the base a humongous pine tree, we were again discussing the navigation of our outer world and attempted to confirm our directional heading.

"I can't remember", my friend says, "It might be up this way."

He reminded me that it had been several years or so since he had been out this way and, personally, I had never been out to this particular point-of-interest... So, he again sent me on another excursion to scout things out while he returned into the variant shades of green on his well-worn, topological map. He held the paper delicately from below, as he moved his finger along the places of highest elevation and over the torn folds and creases of the map.

Coming down off the ridge, I told him that I could see a more substantial elevation in-and-around the next bend. Looking up from the map he agreed and we pressed-on; following the trail about a half mile further. And there it was, a signpost of sorts-right there, etched into the bark of a pine tree-an arrow pointing to higher ground. I could have told you then... and will say the same now: that in most aspects of life there are certainly always higher paths to follow. No exception here, as our boots carried us upward.

Walking past a rude arrow carved into the tree, would-on this trip and all trips to follow-serve as a marker and a reminder of this day and the story that follows.

C-S, two letters, (one letter positioned just over the other; and then an arrow below them) pointing us up the hill... and leading us closer to our destination. Cloud Splitter was near!

How had I been hiking the Gorge all these years and never know this formation was right here? I had (more times than I could count) been hiking not 3 miles from this very spot. Yet, here we stood starring 30ft up at a solemn tree, against a gray, clouded sky and beginning of our accent of Cloud Splitter.

We began climbing a narrow crack-between two mammoth rocks-that ran, in a vein, all the way up between the stones to the base of a tiny, lonely tree high above. Against the abstract of the clouds the small tree was a strikingly profound image. We used a dead, tree truck about halfway up as a pivot point for the climb-a climb that would have otherwise been quite dangerous without the assistance of a rope.

Finally, the haze of the over-cast sky seemed to lessen a bit as we pulled ourselves-up by our hands-overtop the two hard stones and glanced up into the sky, a fleece of dinged cotton stretched far above our heads. The sky looked like the batting of a dim quilt; a bright expanse swathed in a blanket of gray, cotton clouds that held in them a network of thin veins. Beautiful, bright, veiled branches where the light could almost pass through.

Both of us leaning over the edge, I commented on our total reliance for the tiny tree growing up, and curving out, through the center of the crack... after a moment of looking back we both turned to look ahead; revealing that we had just climbed the tip of the "ice burg" that was Cloud Splitter. How could I have not known this was here?!!

I stood in the cold wind, while my friend walked on. I watched as his shirt-tail whipped in the wind gusts that raged against my back... and he appeared as a tiny miniature person; inspecting, what I assumed to be, the gigantic "split" of Cloud Splitter: a huge boulder of mega-monolithic proportions, split right down the middle into two distinct halves!

My friend chose the larger, left hemisphere of the dome-shaped monolith (as this appeared to be the only plausible path to the summit). Standing back in awe, while my companion walked up the lesser grade, he continued to ascend what was still a 60 degree climb of one of the most gigantic rock formations that I had ever visited in the Gorge. And glancing down at my hand I thought of how small my friend appeared-and though, his head stands five-to-six inches higher than my own and though he has a more substantial build-, he looked about as small as an insect would look crawling up the back of my hand towards a knuckle. In paradox, on this great rock we were tiny, little men climbing up what looked like the rounded back of a giant beetle. The two halves of the boulder (that are split in a hard black line, down the middle) flare out, narrowly to the sides, like the wings of a humongous insect preparing to take flight. The wind we felt in gusts, sweeping furiously past us, ready to lift the insect into flight.

Minding the wind, I begin carefully walking along the left of the split. From what I could see, the split began at a width of 3 feet or so and then narrowed towards the top, where the wings of the gargantuan beetle finally came together. Leaning over and placing my hands on the other side of the split I could feel the wind shooting powerfully up-and-over the back of the beetle-shaped formation. And looking down through the narrow crevice it appeared that the split, between the wings, closed up tightly into blackness below. I could only see straight down about 10 feet or so, until the light faded into darkness...

A few minutes earlier, when I was standing at the start of the massive split, I had noticed that each of the walls of the "split" were only 5/6 feet high and I had debated on jumping down on the dirt ledge and following the crack on through; in order to see how far into Cloud Splitter I could travel before getting wedged into the rock. Another thought had swooped in however, and in sensing the passing of time-as the sun had moved over head-and as I noticed my friend disappearing over the rise... I decided there was simply not enough time.

Grabbing the shoulder straps of my back pack and pulling my thumbs together over my chest, I quickened my pace and with a growl in my stomach, I thought: about time for lunch.

Catching up to my fellow hiker I found him 300 yards up the trail that snaked around almost 90 degrees from the head of the summit... he had stopped under a small group of evergreen trees, and was pulling his pack off his shoulder. He placed a portable gas stove in a low point between patches of rock and dirt, in a place that offered only minimal shelter from the noise and exposure of the wind.

As lunch time had been approaching, my amigo had told me along the way about some "Health food" that he had brought along for us... and next to the stove he unloaded a mound of individually-wrapped, packets of food. All the bare essentials: 2 small canisters of potato chips, 2 Styrofoam pales of freeze-dried noodles and a single box of peanut-butter cookies for us to share.

While waiting for the water to boil, I cut the sandwich I had brought in my pack down the middle and offered one half to my friend who graciously accepted the half, and then over-graciously offered me back the tomatoes from his half.

Pouring the first pot of steaming water into one of the noodle pails, we covered it with the lid from my sandwich container and waited for the noodles to "soften".-Another boiling pot of water later... we would be all-set for the main course and in anticipation, with the remaining few bites of my sandwich in hand, I walked out from among the tree cover and took in the desolate, bleak, winter beauty of our phenomenal, clifftop view.

Moving my toes towards the highest edge of the cliff face, in awe, I noticed this was quite a spot to be eating lunch!! We had hiked up along the road, which ran in parallel to the river, but all I could see now was the blue of the river! Stretching-out directly from the line of where my feet were planted (and where the rocks fell away from the horizon), at a perfect perpendicular... the river snaked out into a distant view of scrubby, leaf-less trees that lined it's banks. From this height the dark branches of the trees distorted the image of most everything below; save for the sparkling sapphire of the river. The depths of the green river we had seen earlier this day had now taken on the color of sky, even while the sky was still covered and the sun had not graced us all the day. The wind, now, had actually picked-up a bit even from its previous strength, with gusts violent enough to threaten turning over our noodle cups... so we grabbed our noodle pails and stepped down the cliff face a little ways, towards the river, settling down about 20 paces from the summit to a small bench of rock that offered a very small, but welcome shelter from the wind.

Sitting on that low bench, high above the world... our feet were stretched out in front of us. And as we finished our noodles and the warm broth my friend had fired on the stove, we wrapped up a few conversations we had started throughout the day. My good friend attempted to put words around what he had been thinking along our trek. Not caring how the words might sound, he spoke of his desire to be tied into a more "organic form of spirituality". A presence of a spirit that is small and natural but, allowing him to sense that we are only small parts in the incomprehensible largeness-that is this life.

Just as the words escaped his mouth, the wind that had been whipping around the cliff side died down and we had a perfect view of two, great blankets of cloud that parted ways. In that moment, the warmth of the sun hit our faces and the absence of wind was the absence of sound. Neither of us were looking around; neither of us looking at this visual spectacle. In the brightness our eyes were closed, and while I cannot speak for my friend... I was moved to my very depths, on this day!!

Opening my eyes and seeing his still closed, I can look back now and see this truth...

I realize now, that there was all along access to a more organic spirituality, and that we did not have to climb a mountainside to find it-in the stillness, we found it there.

Pico Iyer shares his idea of stillness (in going to a place called "Nowhere")

[Nowhere is] probably "the wilderness" and the wilderness is probably the place where one finds illumination. But, the reason I came up with that funny formulation is that I noticed when I began traveling a lot, 30 years ago, I would talk about going to Cuba or going to Tibet and peoples' eyes would light up with excitement and now-a-days I notice that peoples' eyes light most in excitement when I talk about going nowhere or going "offline" and I think that a lot of us have the sense that we are living at the speed of light (at a pace determined by machines) and that we've lost the ability to live at the speed of life."

"And so whoever you are, whether you're a mother raising kids or someone going into the office you know that [really] you're extracting the meaning only when you're away from it... and I sometimes think we are living so close to our lives that we can't make sense of them. And that's why people like me go on retreat, or some people meditate or do Yoga, or other people go for runs. Each person-I think now-has to take a conscious measure to separate ourselves from experience just to be able to do justice to experience and to process and understand what is going on in [our lives and direct ourselves.]"

"A lot of us have gotten caught up in this cycle [racing from one text to the next, to the appointment, to the cell phone, to the emails] that we don't know how to stop and isn't sustaining us in the deepest way. And I think we all know that our outer lives are only as good as our inner lives... so to neglect our inner lives is really to incapacitate our outer lives; so we don't have so much to give to other people or the world, or our job, or our kids."  [2]

I did not share all these words with my friend, right then, but I think we both felt the stillness of the moment... and we felt the hand behind that moment; a hand strong enough to still the wind, still our minds, and split the clouds.

Sitting on a shelf, high above the world is not a place that you can stay forever, and any of the words that I or my friend could write are not able to hold a candle flame to the depth of such a moment, but it is in these moments that we must gather our strength.

The cold chill of the wind, as it picked back up directly, had quickly closed the gap in the clouds and was finally enough to prod us back into motion. While standing and packing our things my mind stirred again with the tasks that beckoned from the other end of our day. Packing up our lunch containers and wrappers, we took our last sips of water and proceeded back the way we had come.

Looking down at the clock on my mobile phone, I realized that we had to make the trip back to the car in double-time if we were wanting to make it back into the city with enough time to manage the pick-up line at the elementary school, and I became set on that notion...

But, then come those words from my friend:


As we were descending back down the giant beetle's back, he had thrown off his pack and dropped down into the dirt landing of the split. He waited for me there at the opening and let me go in front as he asked me what I thought...

Taking a few steps back into the crevice the wings of the beetle soared higher and higher above my head. Reaching the place where I could have looked straight up and seen myself looking down-not an hour ago-from this horizontal vantage point, I could see that the darkness gave way back to the light.

I saw that the split in the rock ran back 100 feet or so where a glimmer of light shined directly back through the passage in this truly, spectacular rock formation; the light illuminated the inner walls of this formation and met the wind as it howled past us, up over our shoulders and across our necks.

"It looks like we may be able to climb up and over and all the way through!!" I say, as I am looking back and see my friend's eyes get as big around as silver dollars.

We are both young at heart, and the very thought of this mystery ignites something deep within us... it may be GRAND to go Nowhere but, today we are going Somewhere, and Somewhere greater still!!!

Climbing up a sturdy, log branch, wedged into the passage, and up through where the wind tunnel got the tightest, even myself (with a smaller frame) had to turn my shoulders sideways and squirm through the diamond-shaped portal of light.

On our journey through the heart of the earth we saw that hanging down along-side of the branch was a thick, worn braided rope. We knew that we were not the first two guys to have discovered this alternate dimension, but you could not have discerned this from any change in our level of excitement!!

Working my way through the small opening and looking back at the way we had come was an amazing sight to behold. And in dropping myself down the other side and hollering back through for my friend, he wanted a full report of my findings-even as he anxiously had already begun his own ascent.

The narrow passage finally opened-up to a sizeable cavern on the other end of Cloud Splitter somewhere down below the high bench that we had been reclining on. The side of the cave opened up in a sizable balcony that allowed us to step out and see the path back home. We were a couple kids on Christmas morning! Sweet Christmas, this was an amazing day that would live on in memory!!

A true friend reminded me that we must make time for the unimaginable! We both gathered strength on this day, and recognized that the strength we gathered flowed from something that was awakened, deep within us, not from external places that can only be found by the few.

In reading a small volume from Pico entitled "The Art of Stillness", I agree that many people are afraid of stillness because that is where we confront our beasts... but the beasts from the wilderness will surely devour our outer worlds if we ignore them; leaving them to roam free, the landscapes of our inner worlds.

A last quote from The Art of Stillness, leaves us on higher ground still:

It takes courage, of course, to step out of the fray, as it takes courage to do anything that's necessary, whether tending to a loved one on her deathbed or turning away from the sugar coated doughnut. And with billions of global neighbors in crying need, with so much in every life that has to be done, it can sound selfish to take a break or go off to a quiet place. But as soon as you do sit still, you find that it actually brings you closer to others, in both understanding and sympathy. As the meditative video artist Bill Viola notes, it's the man that steps away from the world whose sleeve is wet with tears for it.

In any case, few of us have the chance to step out of our daily lives often, or for very long; Nowhere has to become somewhere we visit in the corners of our lives by taking a daily run or going fishing or just sitting quietly for 30 minutes every morning (a mere 3 percent of our waking hours). The point of gathering stillness is not to enrich the sanctuary or mountaintop but to bring that calm into the motion, the commotion of the world.  [3]

[1] Krista Tippet, "The Art of Stillness", Interview with Pico Iyer, 2015

[2] Krista Tippet, "The Art of Stillness", Interview with Pico Iyer, 2015

[3] Iyer, Pico. The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere. New York: TED Books Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2014

Bill Hudson   # November 1, 2017

(0) comments

post comment:

Sign In... to post comment