January 27, 2011

Midwinter Wanderings

The Woods Hippie and his rental steed, Beau.
As I mentioned in the last post, I have been in southern California on vacation for the last week, and I got home just in time for New England's latest snowstorm!  Winter is in full swing, folks, and now is the time to get out and enjoy it.  If you're reading this blog, chances are you might have some inclination towards outdoor activities and hopefully don't count yourself among those special people who emphatically proclaim, "Ugghh, I just hate winter" all season long and take up residence on a couch, getting fat in front of the television while complaining of Seasonal Affective Disorder.  Not surprisingly, these are the same people who lament the spring rains, the summer heat, and even find a way to bitch about autumn ("well you know, winter is right around the corner").  Truth be told, let them have their couches, designer anti-depressants, and ineffective gym memberships because the woods stay quieter in their absence.  That sounds harsh, I know, and realistically, I wish more people would get outside because it would benefit humanity in general; healthier people, elevated respect for nature, and diminished advertising revenue for network television.  Overall, a good pair of running shoes, a fly rod, or even a motorcycle is cheaper and more effective therapy than most of what modern medicine has to offer.  You just need the motivation to use them.

Cheap fares and friendly staff. Can't beat Southwest.
[Steps off soapbox] Okay, let's get back on track here.  Well, though I consider Connecticut a good place for the multi-sport enthusiast, I have to say that California really stepped up to the plate with an offering of multi-season opportunities...in mid-January.  In the course of less than a week, I was able to snowboard, ride a horse, and take a pleasant hike, all within a ten minute drive in the San Bernardino National Forest surrounding Big Bear Lake.  60+ degrees during the day and around 25 degrees at night-nice!

The goods.
The first order of business was to procure a rental snowboard and hit up the local slope, Snow Summit.  The mountain was relatively small but offered decent manmade snow coverage and meticulous grooming.  Despite the base elevation of around 7,000 feet, the mountain is still in SoCal only a short drive from LA and the Mojave Desert, so I wasn't expecting ball-deep freshies or anything like that.  Plus, with a 2-fer-1 coupon that resulted in a $28 dollar lift pass, who's complaining?  Next, I convinced some family members with whom I was vacationing to partake in a guided horseback ride through the National Forest.  What a riot!  None of us would even qualify as mediocre horse riders, but our guide was patient nonetheless and we had a great ride through a quiet, "locals only" neighborhood of Big Bear before setting off into the forest.  This was real cowboy and Indian country complete with dry washes, sparse conifers, prickly pear cactus, sagebrush, and crumbling granite boulders.    This was unlike any other outdoor experience I've had because, in addition to route finding and the usual wilderness stuff, you have to consider the psychology of the animal.  Apparently it takes years to develop a close relationship with a horse, but the payoff is immense.  The horse and rider know each others' style and the communication between species becomes effortless and, to the untrained eye, silent.

Speaking of psychology, anti-depressants, and the theme of East meets West, I just finished reading a fascinating book entitled Destruction Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama, by Daniel Goleman.  The subject is a conference between Western philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists, and the Dalai Lama and other practicioners of Buddhism.  As one trained in the tradition of Western science (biology, to be specific), I always believed that modern medicine and research held all the answers to the various afflictions of mankind.  Unbeknownst to me, Buddhists have been quietly studying the human mind for over 2,500 years and have long ago established methods of controlling the very destruction emotions  that are the cause of depression.  One such method is focusing the mind on positive thoughts through meditation (rather than medication).  Interestingly, the findings of Western research, particularly neuroscience, supported the Buddhist theories.  Through the use of MRI and other techniques, researchers have mapped which areas of the brain are active during the cultivation of positive and negative thoughts.  Tests performed on Buddhist monks  trained in meditation revealed that by producing thoughts of compassion (a centerpiece of Buddhist practice), the "happy" centers of the brain were activated.  I found descriptions of Buddhism intriguing, the say the least.  Not to pull this post in the direction of religion, but here is a practice that advocates compassion for all beings, respect for the natural environment, and freedom from destruction emotions without  worshipping  a divine being that would be inevitably divisive.  Interesting.

22 ounces of 8.5% goodness.  Take that, Utah.
So, with all that in mind, I ambled up a local hiking trail on Day 3 of by Big Bear adventure.  The hike was mellow and pleasant, and the easy grade allowed my mind to relax.  Sometimes a vacation must progress a while before we can relieve ourselves (don't be gross!) of the grip of our workaday lives.  The summit greeted me with views of the San Gorgonio mountains, the Mojave Desert, and the Big Bear valley.  Inspired, I tried a bit of meditation myself.  I really had no idea what I was doing but it worked, because I was in one hell of a good mood for the rest of the day!  

Inevitably, the rest of the vacation flew by in a blur of good memories, good company, and good food.  Mrs. Hippie and I stepped aboard our east-bound Boeing 737-700 with a familiar reluctance that surfaces each time we say goodbye to her family.  So, here we are, back home in Connecticut, basking in the recent snowfall, and looking forward to the rest of the best winter in a very long time...

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