The journey begins and ends and begins again

‘In late September of 1973, I set out with zoologist George Schaller on a journey to the Crystal Mountain, walking west under Annapurna and…

‘In late September of 1973, I set out with zoologist George Schaller on a journey to the Crystal Mountain, walking west under Annapurna and north along the Kali Gandaki River, then north again, around the Dhaulagiri peaks and across the Kanjiroba, 250 miles or more to the Land of Dolpo, of the Tibetan Plateau.”

Thus begins a magnificent and difficult journey of adventure, hope and rebirth for writer and Zen devotee Peter Matthiessen.

Upon his return from the beauty and magic of the Crystal Mountain, while sitting in a small and dark hotel room in Kathmandu, Matthiessen ends his narrative with the following:

“I sit down on the bed and begin to laugh, but I might just as easily weep. In the gaunt, brown face in the mirror — unseen since late September — the blue eyes in a monkish skull seem eerily clear, but this is the face of a man I do not know.”

I have been rereading Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard because I remember it being helpful to me during an earlier period in my life. Now, as I did back then, I am looking for some sort of transformative experience to help me though another difficult period.

An old Zen phrase comes to mind for the circumstances I now found myself in: Every once in a while, we must be willing to take everything out of our room, decide what is important to us, and bring back in only those things we need.

When I first read Matthiessen, I was embarking on a journey best described by both critics and aficionados as “back to the land.”

Many of us in the early ‘70s were searching for a respite from war, social injustice and racism.

Our goal was to begin anew, to be reborn on the land, to be able to care for our own needs.

We were after affordable, sustainable and meaningful ways to take control of our lives.

We wanted to shape our own destinies by moving away from the world our parents had created and into one of our own making.

We wanted to limit what we would bring back into our rooms.

Many of us were looking for radical experiences as our way of changing the world around us.

While many of us only dreamed the dream, Matthiessen was there, doing the hard work, transfixed on the Crystal Mountain, working at transformation — open to be transformed by what he found.

Back then, many of us cleared out our rooms and went back to the land. Some of us stayed, most of us did not. For many of us the changes we experienced were temporary.

The world soon went back to where it was.

So today I look back over Matthiessen’s record searching for clues. His journey was truly transformative; what he learned he remembered, what he brought back into his room was sparse, meaningful and enduring.

What is the difference?

Two things, I think.

Our “back-to-the-land” movement was ill-fated from the beginning because as Matthiessen was soon to learn, we cannot just separate (drop out) from the rest of the world. We are hopelessly and hopefully tied to everything else.

And Matthiessen looked for happiness in all the right places. Most of us back then looked elsewhere.

We were looking for temporary relief afforded us in drugs, music and communal living.

We were unwilling to do the hard work of freeing ourselves from our addictions. We simply found new ones.

We brought in our own music to drown out that of our parents.

We screwed the cap back on the vodka bottle and unwrapped the acid.

We gave up the eight-cylinder Buicks of our father’s generation and pieced together easy-to-repair Volkswagens. We continued to consume, just consumed differently.

The Crystal Mountain taught Matthiessen, “all worldly pursuits have but the one unavoidable and inevitable end, which is sorrow: acquisitions end in dispersion; buildings in destruction; meetings in separation; births in death.”

He learned that trusting fully in life means we must first make peace with death. The journey to the Crystal Mountain riveted him in the notion that all that is or was or will ever be is right here in the moment. Now!

We tried to ‘be here now’ in the ‘70s. What we did not know back then (and Matthiessen was soon to learn) was that the process of transformation is a lifelong process, never ending, never to be fully realized. It is the process, not the product, that is the goal.

Matthiessen was willing to accept the truth of the matter: we have allowed our material wants to define who we are and we must learn to disregard that definition.

There will be times when we do not recognize ourselves. Times when we look in the mirror and do not know the face we see.

But do not despair. This can be a good thing.

Gregory Heming is a writer and optimist living in Haines Junction.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Crystal Schick/Yukon News
Calvin Delwisch poses for a photo inside his DIY sauna at Marsh Lake on Feb. 18.
Yukoners turning up the heat with unique DIY sauna builds

Do-it-yourselfers say a sauna built with salvaged materials is a great winter project

d
Wyatt’s World

Wyatt’s World for March 5, 2021.

g
Yukonomist: School competition ramps up in the Yukon

It’s common to see an upstart automaker trying to grab share from… Continue reading

The Yukon government responded to a petition calling the SCAN Act “draconian” on Feb. 19. (Yukon News file)
Yukon government accuses SCAN petitioner of mischaracterizing her eviction

A response to the Jan. 7 petition was filed to court on Feb. 19

City councillor Samson Hartland in Whitehorse on Dec. 3, 2018. Hartland has announced his plans to run for mayor in the Oct. 21 municipal election. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Councillor sets sights on mayor’s chair

Hartland declares election plans

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley receives his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine from Public Health Nurse Angie Bartelen at the Yukon Convention Centre Clinic in Whitehorse on March 3. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
State of emergency extended for another 90 days

“Now we’re in a situation where we see the finish line.”

The Yukon government says it is working towards finding a solution for Dawson area miners who may be impacted by City of Dawson plans and regulations. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Miner expresses frustration over town plan

Designation of claims changed to future planning

Team Yukon athletes wave flags at the 2012 Arctic Winter Games opening ceremony in Whitehorse. The 2022 event in Wood Buffalo, Alta., has been postponed indefinitely. (Justin Kennedy/Yukon News file)
2022 Arctic Winter Games postponed indefinitely

Wood Buffalo, Alta., Host Society committed to rescheduling at a later date

Housing construction continues in the Whistle Bend subdivision in Whitehorse on Oct. 29, 2020. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon Bureau of Statistics reports rising rents for Yukoners, falling revenues for businesses

The bureau has published several reports on the rental market and businesses affected by COVID-19

Council of Yukon First Nations grand chief Peter Johnston at the Yukon Forum in Whitehorse on Feb. 14, 2019. Johnston and Highways and Public Works Minister Richard Mostyn announced changes to the implementation of the Yukon First Nations Procurement Policy on March 3. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Third phase added to procurement policy implementation

Additional time added to prep for two provisions

Crews work to clear the South Klondike Highway after an avalanche earlier this week. (Submitted)
South Klondike Highway remains closed due to avalanches

Yukon Avalanche Association recommending backcountry recreators remain vigilant

RCMP Online Crime Reporting website in Whitehorse on March 5. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Whitehorse RCMP launch online crime reporting

Both a website and Whitehorse RCMP app are now available

A man walks passed the polling place sign at city hall in Whitehorse on Oct. 18, 2018. The City of Whitehorse is preparing for a pandemic-era election this October with a number of measures proposed to address COVID-19 restrictions. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
City gets set for Oct. 21 municipal election

Elections procedures bylaw comes forward

Most Read