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Illusions of Life by George Miller

Illusions of Life by George Miller

Copyright 2010 George Miller Web Publishing by Creative Arts Treasury, Seattle, Washington, USA www.Creative Arts Treasury,com


y anxiety had been building for months now, and I couldn’t escape it. I mean, it wasn’t serious, just ongoing. Like everyone, my life had ups and downs, good and bad days, but something deeper was bugging me, and I couldn’t figure it out or get away from it. When none of my usual diversions took away my uneasiness, I realized I needed more than an attitude adjustment. I needed to flip my world a little, shake things up, and break my mold to let things resettle. I needed a get-away. A small break would ease the rigid static of my life; the trick was to just shake things a little, and not go overboard. I’d known restless people who, on a whim, had completely thrown their lives away just to settle that uneasiness. Often, it turned out that they’d pursued some mirage, not being able to discern the difference between real and illusion. Luckily, I never got that bad, but did have that powerful force in me, and had struggled to control it.


hat’s how I came to take that trip to the mountains that day. After an hour’s drive to the entrance of the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area, I began the five hour hike to top Pawnee Pass. Then, after another two hours, I’d descend the other side and make camp at the glacial lake below. I’d work up a sweat, get away from town and noise, and spend some time alone. It was still mid-spring, and the sky was clear and almost blindingly blue. I‘d put off that needed alone-time for over a month, waiting for good weather conditions. Late spring weather was unpredictable enough, but at timberline, it could rain or even snow even when weather was hot and dry on the plains below. Though late in the day, I started hiking up from the base of the mountain toward Pawnee Pass. The hike began hard, but routine. I pushed myself to make up some time, but when I just cleared timberline and entered a boulder field, I lost evidence of the trail. My map showed general topography and vegetation, so it appeared I was in the right place on paper, but the terrain wasn’t cooperating. I could see a trail etched in the


grass slope further west and above me, and the map showed the trail heading in that direction. So, I opted to just cross the field by line of sight and tie back into the trail up ahead. This was my time to break free, so there’d be no backing up for me today. Later in the day, after hopping from rock to rock over the course of a few hours, I recovered the trail I’d seen from below. I’d met my first challenge and attained my first goal; I could have backtracked to find the trail, but crossing the boulder field was great exercise and a new exploration, and, more important, I’d broken my first mold by throwing away a schedule. I took a minute to look back and rest and took pride in crossing that huge, totally unnecessary obstacle. From my higher vantage point I could clearly see where the trail skirted in and out of the timber below and where I’d lost my way below. I could have saved time and hard walking if I’d just taken a few minutes to relocate the trail, but the more challenging route was the route I’d chosen that day.


et me explain something about myself and my state of mind that day. I placed myself there on that mountain because I needed to refresh and break the bonds of convention, schedules, and what I felt was too much rigidity in my life; somehow, I felt I wasn’t following my best path. I came there to revisit myself and reset the way I looked outside of myself, to escape timelines and entrapments.


eeping to a schedule and hauling more than a minimum of gear would have kept me from my purpose. Losing the trail, and struggling through that boulder field was serendipitous – exactly what I needed. By losing my way and my time, I was on the right track. I pushed myself on to find my next challenge. A little worn, I made it to the summit late in the day. As I approached the top,


daylight was already starting to fade. As I returned from my thoughts, I noticed the increasing wind. Looking to the west with the wind in my face, I saw rising cumulus clouds, hidden from me just moments before below the top. By wandering too deeply in my thoughts I’d ignored the signs of changing weather.


xpecting a storm, I reviewed my options. I looked ahead over the precipice toward my destination, then behind me in the direction I’d come. I could see the lake and sheltering timber far below along a much longer and steeper drop than I’d anticipated. Behind me, I knew things were no better. I started to get nervous, trying to get myself back into my safe, little world. I had come to escape, yet found myself ready to turn back when I saw there was no place to hide from this storm. In the high country, over the course of just minutes, I’d seen weather quickly change from blue sky to rain, with turbulent winds and even snow, and there was always lightning. Lightning would always strike the high points, like where I was standing. Worse, on open ground, strikes often bounced, hitting multiple points where the same bolt could strike and deflecting over miles.


here, on Pawnee Pass, I knew I was facing lightning and with no escape route to lower ground. I very clearly recalled a near miss I’d experienced from only fifty yards away, several years before even below a ridge top. Then, after smelling sour ozone from the ionizing air around me, I’d literally dived down from high ground to escape being struck. That bolt hit where I’d stood just a moment before, and was so intensely white that it darkened that day’s sky. Its instantaneous thunder hammered me as the bolt writhed between my ridge and the next one south for that eternal second.


o that point on the mountain, I’d sought to push myself beyond my typical limits and break the confining molds of my life. Hearts, minds, and muscles are only strengthened and expanded by challenge. But now I’d gone too far, and put myself in real danger. I wasn’t there that day for a suicide walk; I didn’t go there that day to throw everything away; I merely wished to throw some unknown thing away to make room for something new. I was there to open my eyes, expand my limits, to watch and learn from that whatever message that was sure to come. With that memory, I realized I was being short-sighted and ungrateful – I was receiving exactly what I’d asked for that day. Holding that thought, my fear and anxiety fell away; I wasn’t terrified – I became


focused. Calming, I gave myself only thought of holding my ground and finding protection from the storm. T here was only open ground all around me, and I was exposed to lightning and wind from all directions. My only option was to find a depression, a place that would offer relatively lower ground to keep me less “visible� to the forces around me. That day, I did get lucky. I found a depression large and low enough to hide me and my tent. It was pure luck that saved me that day, more than will and certainly more than common sense, preparation, or attention. Long before the tent was up, though, the rain, heavy winds, and lightning did come. I was already well wet by time I got myself and my pack inside. Inside the tent, and in some dry clothes, my attitude improved dramatically. I was dry, my sleeping bag was dry, and the tent stakes were still holding, even though the wind was rocking the tent. The inside of the tent lightened with each lightning strike, but several seconds of thunder delay told me nothing was immediately close.


began to calm a little and changed focus to a bigger picture. If the storm worsened, or turned to snow, I had food for three days and could go without food for several more without problems. I had a full canteen, and laughed knowing I’d have no problems finding more water. I did forget to gather dry wood on my walk up the mountain, so I might have trouble warming if I needed a fire later. The temperature was falling.


I thought through the pros and cons of my situation. At best case, I hoped I could ride out the storm, and my tent would stay up and dry. I could wait a week, if needed, and climb back down to my car. People knew where I had headed and would call the alarm if I didn’t return in a few days. At worst, it was possible my tent could collapse and my gear would get wet, and I’d have some very cold days. Maybe foolishly, I believed I could get by, even with prolonged snow or cold. On top of it all, there was the possibility lightning could still find me in that little depression on the mountain top. I decided not to expend the energy of worry. I felt I’d be OK, and continued calming. I’d make the best of what I could control and ignore what I couldn’t. I set myself to secure my tent as best possible. I spread my pack and extra clothing over my sleeping bag – if the tent collapsed, anything contacting the tent wall would quickly get wet as moisture seeped through. If the tent collapsed, maybe my bag would stay dry, and only those outer layers would get wet while I reset the tent. I decided to dash back outside to place more rocks for further insurance, and I quickly built a rock dam around the tent to deflect any flowing water from around my tent floor. Back inside and in dry clothes again, I got into my sleeping bag to start warming. I was shivering, probably as much from adrenaline as from the cold. Next, I worked on getting warmer and relaxed as I waited to see what developed. I had been foolish on many levels, but second guessing wasn’t going to change things or help me from that point forward. I worked more to let those distractions go and save both physical and emotional energy.


s I lay in my bag, I listened to the storm. With turbulence outside, my thoughts deepened and slowed. I realized I actually found myself in a great place for the introspection I’d sought when I began my trip. Inside my tent, away from the storm outside, my thoughts wandered. I recalled that I’d always found some peace in the fury of storms – somehow they produced a stronger sense of self and place for me. I’d felt both insignificance against, but unity with, the gathering of such majestic power, and the feelings were with me again, even with the threat so close outside. I re-energized with the flash of lightning, I was refreshed by the sound and presence of the rain, and my mind flew with the then fading echoes of thunder.


The storm worked its magic as the day ended. My shivers went away though the temperature continued to fall. I wasn’t secure, but I was comfortable. I could hold out there in that place. Soon, the rain subsided, and I heard sleet hitting my tent. It was getting colder still, and there was a long night ahead, but I chose to stay calm; I was OK right there, right then.


hile lying there, I believe an answer finally came to me about my restlessness. I saw that I wasn’t keeping pace with my expected life successes and accomplishments. In the bigger picture, I was wishing things had been different on many levels. As a younger man, with my mother dead, and never having known my father, I felt hobbled right from the start of my life. I still carried those feelings and realized they’d probably always be with me on some level. I saw that I’d tried harder at my life’s efforts to make up for my losses - maybe I was just too conscious of my mortality. I eased that discomfort recounting my good health and many friends, and the many opportunities I always found to test myself and to grow. I saw that by coming to that mountain I needed to free myself from that self-pity; that it was a useless distraction, and I had no room for it in my life. In that tent, I clearly saw, and honestly appreciated, that I had all I needed for a great life; that my challenges were good, and that by seeing and embracing them I received both the essence and the energy of life. Seeing the value of striving, I set to put that insight into use for the rest of my life. I thought about those I’d known who’d lived the longest, and how they’d faced challenges. My grandfather came to mind. He had a hard life, but didn’t speak badly of it. I wasn’t sure if he sought his challenges, or simply endured those trials with ever growing will. I recalled clearly that he had smiling eyes, even at the end of his days, and I took that lifelesson, that life was to be faced and enjoyed, to heart. I saw that life’s joy was created and nurtured by the best application of attitude, not outside circumstances or events. The internal was within control through the power of choice, and the external was not. I had found my answer, and was comforted, feeling grateful and close to my grandfather.


Somehow, I felt safe, in spite of what was around me. I could hear sleet tapping against the tent, and imagined snow accumulating outside.


s I drifted to sleep in that storm, I recalled a near-death experience my cousin, Dave, had experienced on one of his trips in the wild. After a long struggle in a blizzard, exhausted and lost, Dave had given in and laid down, deciding it was his time to sleep. In his death-sleep, he saw the tunnel of light, and was greeted by long-dead loved ones, but our grandfather took him aside and told him to return – he had more to do. Miraculously, Dave then simply awoke, re-energized, and walked out of that storm as though it didn’t exist, and went on to continue his life’s work.


ometime in the night, I awakened to nature’s call. In an instant, I was brought back to my predicament; I was on a cold mountain top, and I imagined my tent covered with a foot of snow; there was no sleet or wind sounds outside now. I shivered a little, wondering how hard it would be to warm again after going outside. I stalled getting up for as long as possible, resisting the discomfort outside, imagining the snow, the cold and the time it would take to get comfortable. Cussing, instead of remembering my lesson and choosing calm, I braced myself for the cold and began to open the tent flap, hoping for a ten second freeze at most. Half-asleep and irritated, I quickly opened the flap, stooped to step through, and stopped transfixed, looking beyond the tent opening. Suddenly, I was wide awake – stunned, actually. My world was suddenly upside down. Instead of freezing, I was warmed by the outside air. Instead of stepping into snow fall, the air was clear, and I could see the moon, and the dimly-lit hillside. I saw the city lights below to the east, forty miles distant. I was stunned, and it took a moment to comprehend what I was


experiencing. I believed I was dreaming. An instant before, anticipating a foot of snow and cold outside, I was shivering. Instead, I stepped out to find – what? – illusion? Then, the question was purely academic; whatever was going on, I still had to pee.


ream or not, the ground was firm and damp, not snow covered and frozen, and the air was warm with no sign of a storm. Though I smelled moisture in the air, I clearly saw the grass on the ground at my feet, and above me, GOD!, more stars than I’d ever seen before. This had to be real – I’d never had a dream so vivid. I was completely comfortable outside, standing there in my boots and long johns. In the low light, I clearly saw all my surroundings. I walked the few feet to the mountain summit. There, I studied the details of the surrounding peaks, clearly illuminated in the moon and starlight. It was so warm and beautiful, but where had the storm gone? I had to stay outside. Who could sleep? I brought a tarp, my sleeping bag, and pack back that short distance to the top of the mountain, slid my legs into the bag, leaned back, and, using my pack as a rest, sat at the top of the world the rest of that night. It was as though I’d come to a new world in the span of a short sleep.



hrough the night, no other cloud came into view, and the night was almost completely silent. The only sounds were the occasional shuffling from some animal in the dark distance. I was surrounded by tiny lights, with millions of stars over head and millions of man-made lights from the distant city below. There were even solitary lights on some of the surrounding peaks – other sentinels holding off some of their darkness with fire or lanterns. The air was so clear that it seemed I could see figures moving around those lights, though those peaks and lights had to be several miles away. Somehow, in that soft ambient light and the quiet night, those peaks seemed alive; I swore I could see them slowly expand and contract as though breathing. I felt myself one with them, as we all sat there, still and eternal, watching the night. Together, we peaks watched the lights, some flickering, some constant, some slowly parading overhead as passing jets, meteors, or satellites. Gargantuan, we sat satisfied and at peace, unblinking, patiently watching the circles of the universe, eternally waiting for and expressing the lessons and mysteries of life. We each watched our faces change as the moon circled overhead through our night. Later, we watched as the entire eastern horizon coursed, over several patient hours, from darkness to an immense arc of barely perceptible orange, then to the blinding glare of the fully-risen sun.



itting those hours, I was still energized, more refreshed, and certainly more expansive, than if I’d slept the entire night. In the growing daylight, still sitting up in my sleeping bag, my consciousness gradually contracted from an awareness of, and connection to, the heavens and earth back to my immediate surroundings and my small self. I became conscious of the finite while part of me was still flying free and timeless in the heavens. My physical self increased, and I became aware of my weight and my breathing, sitting there on that rock, leaning against my pack. I heard the awakening birds and breezes around me. My euphoria was not fading exactly, just changing, and I knew I’d keep it with me, somehow, on some level, the rest of my life. Whatever I’d experienced had receded. I was in awe of the mystery, yet could only accept it, as it was beyond anything I could then describe or understand. All I could do was proceed – to something, anything, and go on. So, I decided to leave and head down the mountain. While packing my gear, I thought of my changing awareness over the previous hours. Could I have been wrong about the temperature? Did I imagine the rain, sleet, and lightning? It seemed not; I had just packed wet clothes into my pack; they were definitely real and definitely wet. I knew that weather changed quickly at the continental divide, especially in spring, but I didn’t believe a storm could come, and then go so completely, so quickly, without leaving more evidence behind. If the storm was real, and I’d dreamed the beautiful night and my connection to the earth, then it seemed I had yet to awaken as I stood there, energized and bathed in that warm sunlight. As I puzzled these things at the summit, I looked back to the trail, and clearly and contentedly saw my way back down the mountain to the rest of my life.


hen I finished packing, I decided to eat and have some water before leaving, and rooted around my pack for a snack bar and my canteen. I was surprised at how cold my canteen was when I found it. I lifted and tilted it to drink but nothing poured out. I had to laugh at the surprise, thinking my canteen water had begun to freeze at that lower pressure of altitude. I shook the canteen, thinking to break up that little bit of ice, but nothing sloshed inside. I looked at the canteen more closely and noticed it was bulged from the expansion of freezing; the water inside was frozen solid. I was stunned, realizing that this wasn’t a light freeze from cool temperatures and high altitude. It had actually been incredibly cold that night – too cold to sit outside all night as I had. I was once again stunned, realizing I should have been frozen like my canteen. I had to sit down. What had happened here? I looked around at the peaks, the plains


below, the sky – everything was as I believed it should be, and I felt as I believed I should feel. I could see how exertion, fatigue, and the altitude could have produced a little delirium, and that I may have imagined some things, but I was unable to explain how I’d sat comfortably outside all night in below freezing temperatures. Was that night a hallucination? Was I delirious or dreaming? Was I dead? Each question became more and more absurd to my sense of expectation and reality, and none had answers for me. Everything was so blissfully right, yet nothing fit. I shook the anchor of the still solid, frozen canteen once more. I could not (and still cannot) think my way through to an explanation of that experience; I imagined many possibilities, and all seem equally improbable, all stretched me beyond reason, and all were equally wondrous to me. Each question brought more questions than before, and I still had no answers. Giving up, accepting, flowing, all I could do was move on, so I put my pack on and began walking down.


hat day, on the walk down, my heart was light, and, in many ways, no matter what the circumstances, it has remained so since. Each succeeding day since that time has brought me a new gift, though I have to admit I didn’t always see them as gifts right away. That timeless night on the mountain still remains a mystery to me in all ways, though time, and maybe some vision and wisdom, have tempered the urgency and challenge of many of my questions. I do know that I will always have smiling eyes to the end of my time.

The End


Illustration Credits Cover: “A Dark Starry Night” From the book “Peace Warrior” by Steven L. Hawk Page 1. “ The Buchanan Pass-Pawnee Pass Loop,” Mt. Cherokee and the eastern wall of the Lone Eagle Cirque. © Charles Danforth, Page 2. “Jay on Pawnee Pass” August 20, 2006 © Joshua Michael Hill. “Pyrenees Paraselene” A sea of clouds laps at rugged mountain peaks of the French Pyrenees. Copyright: Patrick Lécureuil Page 3. “View on Pawnee Pass Trail” dobbyn > albums > Indian Peaks Wilderness Page 4. “Approaching Pawnee Pass” Running the Buchanan and Pawnee Passes Loop July 19, 2008 Michael’s Gallery Page 5. “Bird-view on the Mountain Top” China-France Bilateral Workshop on Polymer Crystallization Nanjing, CHINA 2006, June, 6-9 Page 6. “Pine on the Mountain Top” China-France Bilateral Workshop on Polymer Crystallization Nanjing, CHINA 2006, June, 6-9 Page 7.

“Sugar Pine Star Party” Gallery of Astro Photography © Tony & Daphne Hallas

Page 8. “The Milky Way over Paranal” © G. Hüdepohl/ESO European Southern Observatory Page 9. “Two Blue Fantasy Planets” Page 10. “Mt. Audubon (highest) seen from Niwot Mtn.” Indian Peaks, Colorado USA July 19, 2001 Page 11. “Looking southeast from the pass” © Sylvia Murphy,


Illusions Of Life 2003  
Illusions Of Life 2003  

An inspirational short story by George Miller