The Swiss Spiritual Experience

Hofkirche in Luzern, Schweiz = Lucerne Church of St. Leodegar, Switzerland

It was eleven am on a Sunday morning in Lucerne, Swizterland, and church bells were calling across the city, drawing the faithful to the steps of Hofkirche St. Leodegar.  A motion of energy, the click clack of women’s heels, the compulsion that led me to try to open the doors of every church I saw in my week in this country, the timing of events all pulled me along with the others in the vicinity to enter the ornate wooden doors and find our own personal wooden seat for Mass.

This cathedral, a distinctive site on the Lucerne skyline, had been calling people in this same manner since at least 1639, if not before in its many manifestations as an Benedictine abbey, monastery and universal church going back to the 8th century.

As the service began, a line of altar boys entered the space in front of the altar from the right hand side, followed by an elderly priest.  They formed a half circle in front of the altar, the priest in the middle in a green and white sash.  The service began with music, followed by a reading.  It was not in English, but if I closed my eyes and concentrated, I could almost follow along.

My mind drifted back on some of the experiences from my trip. In Basel, I had walked nine miles over six hours, experiencing as much as I could soak up in the time I had.  During that time, I stopped by the Basel Minster, a long-standing cathedral, marveling at the vastness of the holy space.  As I had approached the altar, I felt I could even hear the remnants of past music, the whispers of past voices.  I saw motion to my right, and realized it was not the past leaving its prints, but rather the present, as the music was coming from a woman softly playing a song on the organ.

The whispers were those of courteous and reverent voices of other visitors in the second seating area behind the altar.  I was curious about the second set of pews behind the altars in some of the churches that I saw, and I learned later it was to separate the rich from the poor during services.

In Elizabethenkirche, musicians were playing a concert near the altar.  I entered the coffee shop in the back corner and ordered a latte, then sat at one of the two tables inside the corner of the church to enjoy a respite from my walk and appreciate the music.  In the opposite corner, there was a sign indicating one could climb up the winding staircase(s) to the tower, so I started up.  The staircase started winding tighter and tighter in the ascent, and at some point, my courage failed me and I decided I would rather not get wedged up there.  I had the image of myself stuck somewhere near the top and no one to hear my plaintive cries for help. Perhaps I just got scared of losing my footing on the slippery stairs, or maybe it was the fear of heights that stopped me.  At any rate, my heart was beating fast as I made my slow, careful descent.

Two mornings later, I was taking an early morning walk in Interlaken when I noticed a peculiar site in the distance; two churches of distinctly different architecture sharing the same skyline.  I walked past fancy hotels and through a park to get over to that area to satisfy my curiosity. First, I came across what appeared to be an old monastery or convent attached to a Catholic church, plain and simple in details in the inside.  Next to it stood a Protestant church, the two having shared the skyline and property for hundreds of years in harmony.  The Schlosskirche, as this area is called, first housed 30 monks and then 300 nuns starting in the eleventh century.  Later, Reformation swept through Europe and the Protestant church was built.

Their harmonious dichotomy seemed in line with that in my heart, part skeptic and part saint.  The night before, I was stopped on the way to a bierhaus by a couple who asked me to participate in a survey on faith.  The first question had me rank how religious I was on a scale of 0-10.  I rated myself a 7, but then started to question this myself as the following questions dealt with my actual adherence to religious practices.  How regularly do you go to church?  How often do you read your Bible?  Have you ever committed these sins (list)?  Do you believe you will go to Heaven, and if so, (reflecting on these admissions of sins), why?

One of the questions dealt with how I viewed Jesus, and it was this thought, plus that of my cultural conditioning and spiritual upbringing, that I was contemplating on during my mental wandering in the Sunday Mass, perhaps seasoned with good old Catholic guilt.  Perhaps I had just viewed too much iconography during this week of exploring Switzerland.  I had answered that I thought of Jesus as a prophet, as a teacher, as the “Lamb of God”.  During the biblical age, lambs were brought into the temples as blood sacrifices, their bodies wasted as their throats were sliced open.  Jesus was not meek, though, in the spirit of lambs, but rather stood firm against the misrepresentations of faith.  He raged like a lion against the money changers in the temple, and refused to back down to the Pharisees.

Perhaps I had just been touched by the imagery of the Lion of Lucerne, a monument to the Swiss Guards killed in the French Revolution.  I had literally just come from the Lion Monument before the church service, and couldn’t help linking the spear in the lion’s side and the tears rolling down his cheek to the day of the Crucifixion. The conflicting feelings of lamb and lion I felt inside of me, my forgiveness towards those who sinned against me and yet anger at being treated badly, as well as the call to purity and to a sinful nature. I had on one hand the understanding that religion might just be a human construct to make peace with our own mortality, but on the other the feeling of faith in my heart that could not be quenched with reason and a guilt for not having been attending church on the regular.

All these thoughts and more stirred up inside me as the choir picked up, first a harmony of female voices to the left of me, then the deep bass of men’s voices on the right accompanying them, with a touch of organ or orchestra mixed it.  The music intensified my feelings, and I felt a single tear roll down my face, like the one carved into the Lion.  I wiped it off and it was time to leave, but the marks on my heart might stay behind.


Cascade Falls, California

I found myself with some time to myself on the back end of a work trip to Reno, about 23 hours worth. I decided to use that time to explore the Lake Tahoe area, a place I had heard mentioned so many times but had never been.

If you have never been, you should go. I don’t care who you are, you should go. I made some loose plans and didn’t have an expectation of what I was going to see, so all things were a marvelous discovery, from the drive in (after a sideline journey through Carson City) along the Clear Creek area that follows along Hwy 50, a road that wraps around a mountainous grade, to the picturesque drive through Zephyr Cove.  My hotel wasn’t much to rave about (Howard Johnson), but it was walking distance to a public beach access.

I checked that out first, and was brave enough to enter the cold, clear water.  I floated around a bit, marveling at the mountains around us and how relaxing it was there in the water.  I could have stayed longer, but I felt a pull to go hiking or at least geocaching up in the Emerald Bay area.  So after about 45 minutes at the beach, I got out of the water and changed my clothes into something dry and headed out that direction in my rental car.

I drove out of the touristy area that included little shops, hotels and restaurants, and headed further down a road that turned into more of a camping and outdoor recreation area.  Bear signs started to appear, and hiking and biking trails looked like an inviting place to explore.  Signs about Pope Beach and Baldwin Beach beckoned, but I was on a mission to get to a couple of geocaches with high favorite points.  One was a virtual at the Emerald Bay overlook.  This view was so beautiful, and I could have have stayed here a while, but the pull to explore further was strong.
I was trying to find the best place to park to look for an allegedly awesome regular sized geocache, and ended up in the trailhead parking in the Bayview Campground. After parking and looking around, I realized this was not the right spot to approach the geocache. However, I saw a sign that said “Cascade Falls”, with an arrow pointing in a direction that I felt a pull to go. I debated on the wisdom of this decision. I was not actually prepared for a hike. I hadn’t packed any of the ten essentials. I really wanted to know what was down that trail, though.
I saw a man coming back down the path, and I asked him how far away the falls were. “About a mile,” he answered. I asked him if the trail was hard. “It’s not hard…but there are a lot of rocks”. Okay, not sure what to do with that information, but I decided to roll with the “not hard” part and ignore the “lot of rocks” part. Later, I was cursing myself for ignoring the latter…but I made it back safely enough to write this little story a couple of weeks later so it’s not like it killed me. Although I did feel like it tried.

The trail started out very nice, and I wondered what rocks the man was talking about as I strolled along a soft pine covered trail.  It was everything I wanted it to be: a soft forest trail with a view of a glistening lake, and snow peaked caps teasing me in the distance.  Eventually, though, rocks began to appear, just a few here and there that I needed to work around.  The soft forest floor began to be replaced with uneven stones.  I had to concentrate on not falling, and on listening for sounds of bear and making sounds of my own to send them notice in case they were there (not sure how much of a danger it was, but there were bear boxes in the campground and signs all about).


I came upon just a handful of hikers along the way.  Towards the end of the hike, I asked a couple how much farther it was, and the man gave me some tips about how to approach the falls, that there was a way to follow the water down below the trail to get above them.  I followed his advice, as well as steering towards another family who had already made their way to the top of the falls.  I even took a family photo for them.  Another couple arrived shortly after, and I was caught off guard by a smell after they had found a cozy spot to sit above the falls.  I kept forgetting that marijuana is legal for recreational use in California, as it was a common smell I kept coming across during this trip.  And why not.

I could have spent some time marveling at the flow of the water from these little creek-like flows down to the torrent that raged down the mountain, but I did start to worry about making my way back before dark, and I really should have brought some water with me.  I headed back, feeling glad I made it all the way to the falls but also being annoyed with myself for not coming prepared to hike.  Also, I should have taken some safety precautions, like at least sending Jason a ping to know where I was.  I kind of didn’t want to make him jealous of my good time, and also didn’t slow down enough to concentrate on that task.

I came across some young people taking selfies on top of the boulders, and I felt my age and maturity as I lumbered past them, probably flush faced and open mouth breathing.  After some time lurching around the rocks, I finally made it back to the soft forest again.

I finally make it back to parking and realized the best parking for that geocache was at the overlook where I started.  I found it and it was totally amazing.  In the end, I felt very happy with my experience.

When I returned from my trip, I told a couple of friends about this, and both of them acted like I was completely crazy for making that hike.  One of that never would have considered that adventure in the first place, and the other one would not have attempted it without a friend/companion along for safety.

I am not a person who has been afraid to have adventures alone, for better or worse.  My sense of adventure has always been higher than my fear of danger, I suppose, and I don’t let things like not having a companion stop me.  I like exploring new towns, trails, places by myself, although there are times I have felt like I wished I had a friend with me.  When I was driving around Reno looking for the wild horses, I had a strong feeling of wishing Jason was with me, but I think it was mostly because I think he would have really enjoyed it (well, and also he makes me laugh). We couldn’t afford to all come along, though. I did invite my exhusband’s sister to join me on my trip in Reno, but she couldn’t/didn’t commit and then wasn’t answering my calls before my trip. It would have been fun to share that experience with Jason or my former sister in law, or any of my friends, but that is not the way it played out and I wasn’t willing to sit alone in my hotel lamenting the lack of a friend.
I saw some great views, had a good time by myself, and, when I got back into the town area, had a killer eggplant parm sandwich for dinner. I can’t wait to go back someday and bring my family to see this area. Also, I have some unfinished business there, which I will explain about in a later post.


The Power of Peace: Pedernales Style

In this place, the only sound I hear is the beating of my heart.  Lub-dub. Lub-dub. I am weightless, floating, submerged.  Water fills my ears and softens my sides.  I move with the gentle motion of the river, with the motion of the universe.  My eyes are closed.  The sun is gently warming my nose, my forehead, tickles my toes: just the parts of me that aren’t hidden under the cool water. These minutes I want to hold forever.  Nothing is entering my consciousness besides the feeling of my body and its place in the world.

When I finally sit up, I am looking up river.  The sun is bright in the midday and it is hot outside, but it doesn’t bother us here in the river.  I reach out my hands to greet my toddler, to entice him into the water to join us.  He has just woken up from a nap that was induced by the swaying of his father’s back, in his ride in the backpack down the rocky trail to this river access.

We are soon greeted by a female ranger who sternly warns us that we need to be heading up the trail now.  We are at the tail end of our 9 am to 1 pm reservation time in the Hamilton Pool Trail area, and we needed to have already left to be back at the parking area by one pm.

This was my third time visiting Hamilton Pool, and the first time I had been down on the river side.  We had ventured down the river trail about halfway through our time.  We had all been having a good time swimming in Hamilton Pool until a poopy swim diaper caused us to have to make an early departure. We decided to try going down this way afterwards to make the most of our time left. Now that I know what kind of solitude and peace can be found there, I will go again, despite the fact that the trail was a bit long and rocky to get there (it is only 0.6 from where the trail splits, but it seemed long both ways due to the terrain).

I also make an intentional decision to hold on to that feeling of complete peace I had floating in the river that day.  It was akin to the feeling one gets during the shavasana at the end of a yoga session: a feeling I need more of in my life.

Nevada’s Wild Horses

It was a crisp July morning, and I was counting steps in the Mountain View Cemetery in Reno, Nevada.  Or rather, I was counting plots.  Forty six plots down from the end of the row, and about five plots back from the road.  This is what the guy at the office told me, when he went over the cemetery map with me.  He had highlighted the road and the closest tree to use as a landmark, and in the blank space at the top of the page for the person’s name to be visited, he wrote “Wild Horse Annie” instead of Velma Johnston.

“Everyone knows who that is,” he said.  Everyone around here, probably.

It was a little harder to count the plots than what I anticipated.  In this cemetery, there were no headstones.  It was just plot markers, some covered over so that I had to use my shoe to clear the weeds to be able to read them.  There were some kind of animal feces everywhere, was literally over almost every step or near every plot, which surprised me.  It looked like a small dog had free run of this place for years without pickup, or perhaps it is some kind of wild animal with dog-looking scat.  It took me some time to finally find it, the grave of my idol.

I sat on the grass beside the plot, paying my respects.  I pulled out the poem I had written for her twenty years ago, after reading a newspaper article about the Bureau of Land Management turning a blind eye to their own people doing the very thing that was prohibited in the legislation Velma helped to pass: adoption of mustangs in order to sell them to slaughterhouses.  I want to say that the article at that time stating that some BLM employees were adopting up to 100 mustangs a year to turn around and sell for meat on the hoof.

Now there is a different kind of battle being waged over the mustangs, and as I read the poem to Velma’s grave, I realized I should have made some kind of nod to that in this poem as well.  Honestly, I thought I would be overwhelmed with emotion reading the poem to her, but when I was done, it felt pointless.  I did not feel her spirit here.  I was just reading a poem to a flat plot stone on a hillside cemetery.

After this, I got in my rental car and took the Pyramid Valley exit off of Highway 80, heading towards the Palomino Valley National Wild Horse and Burro Center. The landscape along the way seemed very familiar to me.  Perhaps it used to be the way home when I lived near here.

I think I was expecting something fancier when I pulled up to the holding facility.  There was an area at the front entrance that had three information boards posted.  A big building containing hay and some equipment was right inside the fence, and there was a sign on the entrance gate that said “Check in at office”.  I went inside the brown office building to the right of the entrance gate.  There were a handful of offices, but just one person appeared to be there, a long rangy cowboy type of guy.  He got up from his desk in a back office when I came in, and I told him I was here to check in.  “You’re checked in”, he said, and waved me off.  “Can I drive around, then, and look at the horses?” He said no, I had to walk from here (although I saw two other cars that had driven down to the paddocks), and that they just ask that people be careful of the equipment and watch where they were going.

So I took a walk.  It was the middle of the day and a bit hot.  It was dry heat, and the dust from the paddocks added to my feeling of being dehydrated.  I forgot all about creature comforts, though, once I got my first look at the beautiful horses in the pens.  Pen #10 was the first one I came to, and it had mares and foals of every color.  I counted about 100 head in that pen alone.  There was another pen of mares and foals around the corner, maybe another 50, and then there were smaller pens of what appeared to be two year old mares, yearlings, one dun male (maybe a young stud) by himself.  Altogether, I saw over two hundred horses out here, but there were more paddocks further off, although they appeared to have smaller numbers.  In my estimation, there were probably close to three hundred head.

 I wanted to judge for myself the body condition of these animals, to determine if the horses really were starving up there on the range.  All the animals had plenty of hay to eat here, though, good alfalfa, and I have no idea how long they had been at the holding facility.  A few animals seemed thin, but a few animals seemed fat, and for the most part, they were in normal body condition.

One thing that struck me about these horses was a reminder that they really are wild.  Think about how close you can walk to a domestic horse, even a mare with a foal or a yearling.  What is the normal flight distance for a domestic horse with little human experience?  These horses kept surprising me with how great their flight distance was.  For some of the mares, it was one hundred feet, and for the more brave, it might have been six, but on the average, it was about twenty feet.  If I was closer than twenty feet, like when I started to approach the fence to take a picture, they would run off to the other side of the paddock.  When I stepped past their hay manger and they caught a sudden sight of me,  I spooked the whole pen of young mares.  I sneezed once, and heard hooves fleeing the general area.

However, there were a few that really wanted my attention.  In one of the paddocks, two sorrel mares caught my eye, and then started walking briskly towards the fence line towards me, even sticking their faces out of the poles and trying to sniff me.  I did allow them to smell me, even though there were signs saying “Keep away from fences”.  I thought about how it would feel to give them a good curry, to put a saddle on their back, how they might be to ride.  They were on the small side, maybe 14 hands.  Most of the horses out there were not very tall.  One of the yearling fillies, a grey, was taller than the rest of her cohorts.  She was also very curious and she really wanted my attention.  She kept putting her face outside the fence and I really wanted to pet her, but I was a little concerned she might bite.

On the way out, I stopped to see the two pens of burros.  There was this baby burro that was the cutest thing I had ever seen.  It was the size of a dog, and it had this little tuft of a forelock that was blowing in the breeze.  My heart just melted, and I walked closer to get a better look.  As I approached, I heard a sound in the air, something that sounded a bit like Native American flutes and a twinkling.  For a minute, I felt like something magical was happening, but then I realized it was the wind whipping through the pipes of the corral gate.  Or, maybe this was Wild Horse Annie’s spirit.  It would make more sense for her spirit to be watching over these descendants of the Virginia Range herd that she committed to protecting, rather than that turd-covered graveyard, right?

I watched the baby burro and his mom for a bit, then I walked to my car, the pipe music still in my ears and tears running down my cheeks.  I was overwhelmed with emotion, then, thinking about the House Appropriations Committee’s vote last week (July 18) to allow these surplus animals to be euthanized.  Up to 92,000 mustangs will be in danger of dying, including animals like these ones I saw today, if the Senate makes the same decision after their August recess.  I imagined that grey filly with a needle in her neck, injecting her with Euthasol.  I thought of that baby burro, dying for no reason other than there are too many wild horses and burros, and not enough range, not enough adopters.  Memories of euthanizing horses while working for vet clinics filled my mind.  Even though it could be worse – the government could be allowing them to go to slaughterhouses – it still sucks that so many can die.  I cried for that baby burro and all those beautiful horses all the way back to Reno.

Later that afternoon, I took a drive down south to see the range and try to find some horses in the wild.  I saw about five bands of horses, a total of probably fifty animals, but I also saw a lot of range not occupied.  Sometimes we think it is the greed of the ranchers that is causing this to happen, that it is because they want grazing rights instead of allowing the mustangs to have the land.  I did not see any cattle, and the only sheep I saw were contained on their own property.  The range land that I saw was rough.  There was little grass, but a lot of rocks and sagebrush and small mountains to climb up and down from.  I realized that is probably why they needed helicopters to round them up.  The mustangs were probably surefooted out there and were used to it, but regular horses might have a hard time on that landscape.

I talked to a local when I stopped to buy my kids some candy.  She said that sometimes they were shipping off small bands of the wild horses to places like Montana and Wyoming, where there was more grass and predators to control the population.  She wished that they could dart the stallions and make them sterile.  The basic problem is that the horses keep breeding and there is not enough predators to keep the population down, nor grass to keep them alive.

I don’t know what the solution is for the wild horse.  I know the ideas we have come up with are not working.  I know that I don’t want them to die, and I still want them to range free, somehow.  It makes me very sad, and I wish I could save all of them.  I feel Wild Horse Annie’s passion tugging at me to take action, but I am not sure how yet.  The only thing I can think is to put pressure on the Senate not to accept the mass execution of the surplus horses.  But what, then?