Letting Go, Sinking In
“I just couldn’t take it anymore in Santa Barbara—or Hell, I call it,” he was saying. “When you’re thinking about getting out of Hell, you tend to think about. . . let’s see. . . Heaven! And I was lucky enough to have Heaven well-marked in my brain.”
“And a direct path between Hell and Heaven,” I noted, “that’s quite a trick!” So he’s back; twice before he’s lived within five miles of this place for a year or more, and it’s time again.
Images: Karie Reinertson, Shelter Protects You
As for me, it’s a touchstone in the pulse of seasons. Two or three times a year I return to these earth-warmed waters for some of the deepest recharges I’ve found in this life; it’s gotten amazingly consistent, to the point that now I pretty much count on the nourishment that I’ll find here. Hmm, that sounds like the first inkling of trouble—I guess it all depends on how I meet what comes: this time, next time, every time.
Here in the wintry depths of the year, the sun is low all day through the forest as I head down from the car. It’s been fairly warm, so the stream is virtually ice-free (just a few dangling fingers along the bottoms of some boulders, suspended above the water line). Today I move right across the canyon bottom, and head on up the far slope. Pause at the first crossing of the little stream flowing down from the springs, where the fireflies danced one late spring night (the seasons are always out of synch in this little three-by-six-foot zone, never fully winter, summery expressions by April). Fingers slip into the flowing warmth; green grass (!), snow-laden pine bough, browned-but-supple tendrils of last year’s growth. A moist grey boulder presides over little pool, edged by a patch of bright watercress. Up the slope a ways, ice under last night’s light snowfall makes me focus intently on each step, the forest around receding as my attention turns to the ground below and just in front of me. Gotta remember to remember this on the way down!
Quite a crowd at the pools, for a weekday afternoon: a chatty Asian party (I feel a bit ignorant not knowing if that’s Japanese, Chinese, or Korean being spoken….), a couple urban anglos, a young hippie (short hair, but his open face shines softly, a subtler freak flag flying), and a quiet Hispano-Indian guy sitting up by the cave. The hippie, who turns out later to be the one who’s returned to his Heaven, calls up, “welcome to the springs. . .”
“Thanks, it’s great to be back,” is the reply, true and simple.
But as usual, before sinking in, I head up the slope above the waters. This magical forest is at least as much a draw as the hot springs.
Boulders scatter across the long slope in all sizes: small cabin to ankle-twister and everything in between (including plenty of perfect sitting stones); the forest shifting from mostly ponderosas along the stream coming up the slope, to a beautiful mixed community of droopy cedars, soft spruce, and orange-barked pondos, including a few old grandmas towering along the moist drainages; sunlight streaming in low, though it’s just early afternoon.
The snow’s been melting off the sunny faces of the boulders, so there are almost-dry spots to sit, though much of the ground is hummocked with white mounds of snow-covered rocks, and all the larger boulders still sport bulging white caps. After pausing near a big one with a little overhang where small fires have been built (imagining returning with my son and perhaps a friend or two, feeling how this place might teach him, too, something of the practice of awareness and finding one’s way in this world of mystery), I wander up slope a bit.
(There’s an amazing stripe of snow down the back side of one of the giant pondos, stuck to the rippling bark, dark and light highlighted in wintry grace; it draws me upwards. My gaze shifts down to the ground as I make my way through the lumpy rocky snowy spaces between larger boulders. When I look up again, the snowy streak has turned into the pale trunk of a young cedar alongside the grandma—ha!)
I find myself on the edge of a tiny seep just across from one of the big pondos, with the giant and its illusions a just another fifty feet up the drainage. Grandma and her daughter, with kids, cousins, grand-aunts, and young’ns scattered across the hillside, orange towers standing out in the forests’ browns and greens. Two water voices dominate the soundscape: the deep roar of the river a couple hundred yards away in the bottom of the canyon, and a delicate tinkling from this seep near my feet. A few birds combine into an ongoing twittering murmur, mostly scattered across the forest below me, maybe lingering near the water (when I turn upslope, the forest is virtually silent, save for some breeze and occasional snow clumps dropping). Every minute or so a car or truck passes on the road across the canyon, its rumble quickly drowning out the birds, then the river below. But the little seep, which doesn’t seem as loud as the river, manages to make itself heard through the motor’s roar—it’s tinkly higher frequencies distinct enough to keep a bit of texture audible through the intrusion.
When I lift my gaze from the forest, and out to the hills that ripple down-canyon from here (light and shadow on slopes and valleys, sun low in my eyes, clouds dancing above), something shifts inside. The singing seep, the winter birds, the forest and stones: I am here. I am this little hillside: I feel the ways that this place is alive, within its larger home place. The songs of these birds and this water, the wind and the footsteps in the snow, the cars and distant planes, all this is the voice of this place. Looking across the hills, each little corner is living its own parallel life, interwoven with this place. Past the edges of what I can see, villages add their concentrations of human activity, the river below me part of those places too (I was there by its banks at Bodhi this morning, snow falling into the steam that rose from the pools, shrouding a Buddha statue). Further down-canyon, the land opens toward the vast, dry expanses of the Cabazon region (cut by surprising bursts of bosques and birds in the downcut drainages of the Rio Salado and Rio Puerco). Up the road from here, in the branching headwaters of this river, meadows spread to one side, then the other, laying quiet beneath snow, streams singing under and with their ice, which melts a bit each day and sculpts a new diurnal dance along every edge, each night. . . . all this within the great volcanic sentinel that is the Jemez Mountains, crumbled yet still so grand, one of the mightiest isolated landforms on the continent: a 20-mile wide caldera, the circular remnant of its million-years ago majesty dwarfing the pinprick cones of Shasta, Rainier, and Hood on those fancy new relief maps of the continent. This old volcano punctuates the southern tip of the Rockies, independent of that long spine of the continent, yet integral to the regional sense of place, a bubbling up that marks the spot where the Rio Grande rift crosses another long, angling crack in the crust of our continent.
Woah. . . “this place” sure did expand just then! Back here now, the singing trickle gives itself to the trees, the trees and their birds sing to the sun down canyon (the communal twittering surges each time the sun appears from behind clouds), the roar of the river anchoring it all. I sense a two-way communion, the give and the take – the song of this corner offered into the world, and the ways that here is affected by what comes from out there. Cars drowning out birds’ aural connections, the sun’s warmth triggering bird calls and snow-plopping, a light snow flurry stilling the woods.
(What’s THAT?? A piercing pulsating roar that swallows all other sounds, filling the whole canyon with its assertion. Helicopter? If that’s a helicopter, I definitely want to keep them out of the Valle Grande! But no, it’s sounding down the road now, a pause as it shifts; my god, it was some outrageously muffler-free vehicle….)
The sun, the wind, the traffic beyond this slope leads me out again, into the larger picture: regional rain shortages triggering beetle invasions that leave hillsides browned with dead pines, while (expanding in time) this forest adapts to global warming, species slowly moving uphill to stay in their comfort zones.
I can barely hold to one scale for more than few moments. . . they interpenetrate within me, my attention shifting from one to another. . . no, it’s more like I’m holding several attentions at once, living in many scales of “place”, many levels of “self” at the same time. And at the center of this expanded awareness, there’s that two-way channel of this hillside adding its life to the larger wholes it nests within while the outer, encompassing patterns outside enter this place and change it moment to moment. The in-breath and the out-breath of place. . . . of life. . . . of my own warm, still body standing here in the sunlight of a winter’s afternoon.
Looking across the hillside, southwest toward bright shafts of gently warming sunshine, snow-laden branches sway; receding depths of forest seen between the trunks of two spruces and a third angled madly across the space they hold, halfway through a seasons-long sag toward the forest floor. Puffs of wind free sun-softened snow clumps from their temporary resting places in the trees, sending little pea-to-cherry-sized mini snowballs toward the ground; they gracefully (and quickly—a bit too sudden to really see) release themselves, relaxing apart like a gentle sigh, showering the space below the branch with the most delicate sparkles, alive in the sun (drifting a bit downwind as they fall). Eyes widen just a bit, and my breath catches at the beauty as sun-filled flecks disappear onto the ground.
A few seconds later, another branch releases a bit of its load—just a bit, though; it’s all very gradual, incremental moments of a much longer dance of sky, tree, and snow. Still gazing between the two trunks, bits of the forest’s sun-streamed air are filled with dancing specks, again and again, at different distances. And then – it should have been no surprise, but it was! – a shower descends into my field of view from just ahead and above, shattering like the others in a sudden moment from a mix of sizes into shimmering tiny bits, a breath of sparkling frozen moisture spattering delicately into my face, and on past. As the diffuse cloud of icy light enveloped me, time stopped, or I stepped into time, or, really, it was more like time just didn’t have any relevance (so, hey, why am I working so hard to talk about time?!?). And I’ve gotta admit, in that moment of wonder far beyond anything words might touch, what came to mind was: “It’s just like Disney!!”
Ah, yes, the greater world does indeed have its effects on this tucked-away moment in place!
Like watching a meteor shower, I lingered, not quite able to turn my attention from the show. (And always kind of waiting for another amazing one! But when one comes, shall I let that be the “finale” and turn away, or linger with the ongoing beauty of the smaller ones….?) Eventually, I found my legs moving, headed down the hill toward my daypack, making a point of avoiding wherever bootprints showed I’d walked before, taking a different way around a new side of any boulder I’d already passed.
Which brings us, now, back down to the springs. The Perfect Springs. Heaven, remember?? Such is my love for this place that when I slipped into the top pool, longing for its warm embrace enough to take dual-language chatter from both the Asian and Anglo parties in stride, then turned to gaze down-valley into the sun, I was only momentarily taken aback by the pile of plastic bags and mostly-empty juice and soda bottles perched on the top of the center stone on the down-side of the pool. Very unusual for a weekday. . . usually the bathing suit-clad picnic crowd is only here on weekends. The sunlight was kind of pretty through the orange and green bottles, though, and the bags shone white not unlike the way that the pine boughs had been glowing up above. . . . I considered asking for them to be moved, but then settled into the idea that this is what the pools are offering up today, and so relaxed into this place that feeds me so well. Back home, back to the perfection of this place, its valley-side location, its afternoon sun and beautiful dusk skies, its ever-changing cast of characters, and of course its waters. The top pool, clear, with the slightest green tint, nice sitting rocks waiting not far below the waterline, so at times we can sit up high, venting the heat that builds over ten or fifteen minutes in here. The lower pool, its waterfall tumble drowning out conversation from above, its waters exactly the right temperature for endless soaks—primo for all-nighters.
And the cave. Inviting us to snake in and touch the source, to sink into the intense heat of its shallow water; though I can’t stay even five minutes, those are the minutes that bring me closest to the mother of creation. . . .
Today something’s different. The main pool isn’t really heating me up that much. Once in a while I need to raise my arms onto a rock along the side to cool a tad, but no more. . . and much of the time, I’m sinking in as deep as possible, migrating toward the inflow from the cave to get a bit more heat. There’s no way the lower pool will be warm enough to settle into for hours. When I head into the cave, I finally find the kind of heat that usually fills the main pool; but now I can linger up there as long as I want, lying in the shallow water as the sun streams in through the opening down past my feet (lining up my body with the opening so that the sun glares in at the top of a thin shaft that opens below into the shape of a guitar. . . hmmm, usually it’s so intense in here that I can only breathe and be with the stones and water, definitely no spare attention for playful visual games…). I reach my hand, as always, toward the small hole from which the waters pour forth, and the flow is just sliding down over the rock below the hole, rather than gushing with a bit of a leap like usual.
Or, like it used to. . . .
It appears that things have shifted a bit in Heaven. Is this temporary? Can it be “fixed”? But, but….this was The Perfect Hotspring, a nicely hot stewing pool, the body-temp lower pool, and the solitary cave of prayer and intensity. I tell you, it was Just Exactly Perfect! Our returning denizen of Heaven says that it’s been this way since he arrived a few weeks back, so it’s not related to melt water (and I never remember it being substantially cooler in winter – only after a big thunderstorm). He noticed that it looked like someone might have tried expanding the outlier “upper pool”, and it had collapsed in some, so maybe that’s had some effect; and some guy came by who wanted to collect water from the cave source, and when he found it trickling over the rocks had futzed around with pebbles in the hole to try to get it to spurt out, so that could be a real problem if lots of folks try it. Who knows whether attempts to “unplug” the flow, either at the upper pool or here, would backfire and totally cave in the channel?
Heaven-dude – actually, he goes by Pan, and has during previous stays endeared himself to the rangers that oversee this place by being responsible and helpful when people did stupid things and got hurt up here – and I talked at length about all this, about how things change and about how trying to fix it could just as easily totally screw it up. I even fantasized about getting springs-lovers from the lab to come up here with high-tech sonars to parse together the flow restriction or use some kind of mini-explosives that can move just the rock you want to move with no extra energy to cause damage. . . .but at that point I was definitely getting seriously carried away by my attachment to the Perfection I’ve known and loved here.
As I dried off to go, I told Pan that I had some grieving to do, that I’d have to let go of how it’s been. He piped up that as long as the main pool is warmer than our bodies, it’ll be a nice place to be. Sure enough; that’s the note to leave on!
I headed down in time to enjoy the last of the day’s sunlight on the way back to the car. Near the bottom of the canyon, I paused just above the shadow-line (the river had already seen its sunset). Arranging myself so that the glare of the low sun, just beginning to slip behind the far canyon wall, was behind a tree trunk, the soft near-horizontal light streamed through the forest. As the light began to barely dim on the greens of the pines around me and the warm creeklet nearby, a pattering of new snow began to tumble through the foliage all around. The sun still shown a mile or so down the canyon, giving hillsides a rusty tint through the light pebbly snow, little balls that bounced in crazy, random paths (crackling, tinkling) among the dry leaves of eight-foot scrub oaks on the way down. Not unlike the stuff in snow globes, actually.
I crossed the river, glad for the added handhold of thick wire that someone had stretched to accompany the snow-coated log bridge, and headed up the trail toward the car, taking my time, doing some “slow walking,” my gaze sweeping the sky, past the soft edges of this cloud passing by (dropping bits of itself), through the gentle grey of the specks to distant hills still lit by the sun, and back to the trees and rocks along the trail. Beside me, an orange wall of soft, pocked rock rises maybe ten feet, each crack and ledge jumping with tiny snowglobe balls, a kaleidoscope of action: in small grooves one or two a second bounce off and down-rock, longer slanting ledges bloom with a steady rollicking stream of bouncing, tumbling nuggets of white, and a flat ledge outside a hand-wide “cave” caught one or two a second (melting away in the lingering sun-warmth). Each little eye-full of the rock wall – the rhythms and arcing patterns, the details of motions – was a joy to watch; when my awareness spread to take in the whole wall the tiny patterns were lost, but the rock was draped with kinetic delight, little giggles of activity from the top to the bottom.
Pausing to take in the canyon vista one last time just twenty feet from the parking lot, a burst of door-slamming, brief words exchanged, and shuffling of packs from above marked the arrival of the next party of pool-lovers. The thick groves of pines leading down and back up to the springs were now coated afresh (on the windward sides only) with the yields of the pebble-squall. As the two of them passed me, I offered up that “The snow-globe got a fresh shake just for you guys!” Casting their own glances across the hills, faces aglow, they agreed, as gravity and anticipation pushed them on down the trail.
I started on up the last few steps, murmuring to myself, to the sky, to the day, to the times, “…and for me, too, I guess!”
This essay was originally written in December, 2004. The pools have remained cooler ever since.