Labyrinth 4: Love

Labyrinth 4: Love

I was in love. I did not know it.
What I knew was awe. Once freed of their boots, my feet caressed meadows sprinkled with flowers like small gems. My eyes gazed at sunrises that set flames on granite spires, then brushed them downward. With all the hiking, my legs had strengthened, yet they sometimes grew weak as I stood before landscapes like I’d never seen or imagined. My few prior trips to the Sierras had been in winter, when all was frozen and the weather limited time outdoors. Never before had I seen the high country in its summer glory, not even in pictures.
While trekking the JMT in the summer of 1975, I didn’t connect the word ‘love’ with how nature was making me feel. The word was in my vocabulary, but I didn’t know what it meant. For most of my upbringing, I’d felt unwanted. My grandparents and sister said they loved me, but their support was unreliable. My grandparents sent me back to my stepmother at the end of every summer, and my sister too often switched from sweet to hateful. Years later she was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)—which causes unstable moods and troubled relationships. But I didn’t need the label to know she had problems with love. And, of course, my mother’s depression and death had made me deeply skeptical of it.
My family’s unreliability made love seem unreal, but so did my own emotions. Like my sister, for much of my life I suffered mercurial moods and intense reactions, which meant I was barely more capable of reliable love than she was. I too was eventually diagnosed with BPD (along with other mental health conditions). Though my case was less severe and debilitating than hers, I’ve long struggled to meet social challenges without losing my cool.
One of my prior trips to the Sierras happened when a junior high school friend invited me and some other boys to join his family in their A-frame near Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort. Though I’d taken but one skiing lesson, my companions led me into a gondola that took us to the top of the black diamond Cornice Run. As I timidly approached the precipice, an older skier swooshed by and exclaimed, “My God, he’s snowplowing! He’s going to die!” Luckily, there was a curved path that bypassed the ice ledge and gave me non-suicidal access to slope below. More terrified of losing face than risking my neck on the run, I navigated down by skiing one way across the slope, sitting on my butt, flipping my skies, then standing to ski back the other way, over and over. At every moment there was risk of losing traction and tumbling down the steep, slick mountainside, but I made it to safety. I’d hoped to prove myself to my schoolmates, but my performance was so poor, I wasn’t surprised when they greeted me with taunts.
“It took you forever!”
“You looked stupid, dude!”
I felt as humiliated as if I’d chickened out and taken the gondola down. A happier kid could have bounced back by making a joke or something. I remained silent and tried to forget what happened. But then, during dinner with my host’s family, one of the kids suggested—in a bland and possibly kind tone—that I needed more lessons. Something exploded inside me, and I screamed, “Fuck you! Fuck you! FUCK YOU!” The table went silent.
My experiences in my family and episodes like the one above frightened and confused me. They taught me to hold back, to think of love, affection, and friendship as mere words. With no experience of people committing to my wellbeing, I learned to be careless of others’ feelings and my own best interests.
So the love I felt for the mountains was something I recognized only later, when reflecting on that summer. Yet it seems very real with that retrospect. It gave me new energy for living and helped me feel enthusiastic about my future.
I’d spent plenty of time in natural landscapes before, and I’d enjoyed them. But feeling a loving connection with nature had needed the intimacy of days and nights in the world of Life: the delicate meadows, the rivers of snowmelt, the granite mountains, the thin blue sky. Standing before earthscapes that baffled mind and heart, I fairly swooned. It was almost as if my lonely, virginal, adolescent self was granted a chance to spend weeks alone with the girl of his dreams.
In a few months, I’d enjoy exactly that experience with Marion, my high school sweetheart. Through quirks of chance, we’d spend weeks alone together, each of us feeding the other’s vast need. With her I’d enjoy feelings similar to those in the mountains, but electrified by companionship and—of course—sex. Yet, despite the power of the love I shared with Marion, the love I shared with nature lasted longer.
The two were related. Completing the JMT and spending so much time in bliss helped me feel bold enough to bond with Marion, so the word ‘love’ began to mean something for me. The nearness in time of my passions for both her and the mountains mixed the two together.
To this day, my love for Life feels romantic and intimate. Equally, my love for my wife and other dear ones feels like a force of nature. Because of these associations, I’ve come to feel genuine relationship with the world of Life. It offers me the reliable support my family did not: its air surrounds me, its warmth enwraps me, its solidity upholds me, its food and water sustain me. I sometimes even suspect Life loves me in the sense of feeling positive regard for me, but I always know it loves me in the sense of supporting me. I thus feel a loving relationship with world of Life that must be similar to the relationship religious folk feel with an ultimate power, often called God.
In Alcoholics Anonymous, spirituality is important, and it’s framed as belief in a ‘higher power’. For many, that power is God, but AA allows for anything. I have come to understand that Life itself is a higher power. It is so supportive, so ever-present, so creative and intelligent, it is—in fact—much like the God of religion. In humanity’s hunter-gatherer days, nature was surely understood as the power that created and destroyed. It was both the source of the body and its final destination. It surrounded all beings and all activity, a part of everything through all of time. It was the source of any and all gods that might have been worshipped. Only when we separated ourselves from nature did we need more abstract and distant deities. Until then, our central relationship was with the ecosphere, who was (and is) our Mother.
Those understandings came later. In 1975, falling in love with the mountains simply inspired a dream that never faded, even as intimate partners, friends, and other relationships came and went. While camped beside Thousand Island Lake, every morning seeing Banner Peak painted with sunshine, yawning its granite tooth toward the sky, I began to imagine a future beyond drugs and chaos. I could study the world of Life; I could commit to it and build my future around it. Though often obscured by confusion, fear, and sorrow, that dream never left me. It is in view right now, motivating me to tell this story despite the weariness born of discouragement, despite self-doubt.
In penning tales from my past, I’m trying to show what Life taught me about itself. It turns out these lessons have been studies in love, a startling fact that motivates me to proceed even though it means revealing shameful secrets. But Life has been too generous a teacher for me to keep its lessons inside. Besides, doesn’t love make everyone a little reckless?