"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious" ~ Albert Einstein

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Mitral Valve Prolapse on Merriam Peak (13,103')

This was a great weekend back in early Fall, 2008.  I spent a few days living out of the car and hiking a couple peaks.  The first day had me going up the Laurel Creek drainage for the first time.  There aren't a lot of Sierra trail heads that require 4x4, but this was definitely one of them.  Overall, it wasn't horrible, with only a couple rough spots.  I went up Bloody Mountain that day, which was a really nice hike.  Unfortunately, the views were really hazy due to a wildfire burning on the west side of the Sierra.

The next day had me meeting up with Charles and Mary for a hike of Merriam Peak.  I think most seasons I end up doing the majority of my trips with company and just a handful that are solo.  This season seemed like it was trending the other way and I was looking forward to some company, especially since Merriam was a bigger hike - just shy of 20 miles and over 7000 feet of gain.  That and I hadn't seen much of either Charles, or Mary, all summer.

Turns out Charles called to let me know they were going to be very late, but I had already arrived at the trail head and was out of cell phone reception.  As the day grew late, I started to wonder where they were. Another car drove up to the trail head a little later. Whoever it was couldn't see me, because I was in the back of my 4Runner.  Some guy got out and proceeded to walk around the parking lot having an unintelligible conversation with his apparently invisible companion.  At one point, he stopped near my car pointing up at the mountains telling his imaginary friend some grand story, while picking his nose with his other hand.  I decided to stay in my car for the remainder of the evening.

I passed out shortly after it got dark and was awoken later to a truck driving into the parking lot. Charles and Mary had finally arrived, but being half-asleep I never did manage to get up and say Hi. I quickly passed out again.  My alarm went off at 3AM and I was up and at'em by 3:05 AM. Apparently I was a little too eager to hit the trail, because I accidentally set off my car alarm in my rush and probably woke up half the mountainside.  Still, though, not a stirring from Charles and Mary.  Strange.  Now, I began to doubt it was even them.  As I walked over to the truck I looked for a familiar sticker, which would ensure me it was them, but I didn't notice it.  I was going to go check anyhow, but then I imagined some couple sleeping in the back of their truck, waking up to some stranger peering over them at 3AM.  I guess that made me decide it wasn't them.  It couldn't be.  The car alarm would surely have woken them and it didn't even appear to be their truck.  I decided to turn the other way and hit the trail, excited to start my adventure to Merriam Peak. 
Merriam Peak, Royce Lakes Basin

My excitement waned slightly as I entered the pitch dark forest on the lower portion of the trail.  This normally doesn't bother me, but made me realize again that I did prefer to be with company this day.  All throughout this portion, I kept hearing small crashes in the bushes off to the side of the trail. I knew it was just some small animal, perhaps chipmunks.  But, that little corner in the back of the mind wonders if perhaps it isn't a mountain lion.  Or, the Boogeyman stalking me.  Or, worse yet ... the nose-picker from back at the trail head - the Booger man.

In my early 20s, I started getting a lot of strange, mostly cardiovascular symptoms.  It took some time, but I was eventually diagnosed with Mitral Valve Prolapse (MVP).  Getting it diagnosed was trickier than it should have been and I was briefly diagnosed with something far more serious and fatal. Tums out, MVP is a condition that a lot of people have, but it's usually asymptomatic and folks often don't even know they have it.  I didn't for the first 20, or so, years of my life.  More rarely though, a case like mine becomes symptomatic.  No one really knows why.  One semi-controversial theory says MVP is associated with what's called Dysautonomia, or MVP Syndrome.  My personal experience seems to match up very well with this.

I eventually learned to manage the condition fairly well, through diet, exercise and general lifestyle changes, as well as taking a daily medication.  It makes me not feel good at some point almost every day, but it doesn't stop me from doing much.  It just slows me down a little.  My wife thinks that might be a good thing anyhow and she just might be right!  The medication, which is a beta blocker, and the Mitral Valve prolapse are both generically described as causing some exercise intolerance.  I found this means I need a good warm up before really hitting things hard and my breathing hardly ever feels quite as free as it used to. 

That morning I was eager to get out of the forest and above the tree line.  Realizing I felt unusually good, I picked up the pace considerably.  This was one of those rare mornings where I felt like I could breathe again like before I had MVP.  My lungs were wide open and free -  power-houses converting the fresh mountain oxygen into instant energy and delivering it to my legs, which felt unstoppable in their pace up the hill. 

Part way up from above the tree line, I saw a light near the forest's edge.  It was Charles!  He must have jumped up a few minutes later and hit the trail too.  I could see his headlamp now, as he was trying to catch me.  Mary must have decided against the early start and slept in.  I started to wonder if I should stop and wait for Charles to catch up.  The workout was feeling great and I was wanting to stick with this enjoyable pace. That and I knew Charles could be really fast.  I decided to keep going and wait for him at the first lake if he didn't catch me by then.  I felt like my pace increased even more, but as I looked down the light seemed like it was moving even faster.  "Man, Charles is cruising!", I thought.  And, the sooner he catches me the better, because some company was still sounding very nice.  I kept checking on the steady progression of the light for some time.  Until, one time, I looked back and the light didn't quite seem to be in the right place.  It was like it was off the trail.  Huh, what's going on?  After a few moments, I realized what I had been looking at was a light from the nearby Tungsten Mine!  Of course, this light could not have been moving at all.  I thought, wow, I must have really wanted some company to hallucinate that whole little scenario.

I stood there in the dark, somewhat confused.  Suddenly, the large canyon I was hiking up seemed awfully lonely.  At the same time, the sudden wide-open loneliness of the canyon made me more aware of its details.  The distant roar from a waterfall echoing off the canyon walls cascaded into my awareness and lifted my mood almost as fast as it had sunk.  I love that sound.  It's like the ocean.  Noisy as hell when you stop to think about it, but very calming and peaceful at the same time.  The whole absurdity of the obvious blunder I made also gave me a good laugh.  My spirits quickly picked up and my pace picked up again even faster.

I got the first 5-6 miles of that hike done in what seemed like a flash.  It was like a quick, lively dream you might have during a 5 minute nap, hardly believing you had time to fit it in.  But, now, here I was - wide awake - at Honeymoon Lake, with the sun rising above the distant Inyo crest, bringing with it the new dawn and enlivening me with energy.   I stopped to fill my water bottle back up and get a snack before the easy cross country that leads up to Royce Lakes basin.  I was still surprised at how good I felt.

I finished my snack, grabbed my backpack and started out again.  After only a few moments, a wee bit of a sluggish feeling came over me.  Not too long after that, I started to really drag.  The terrain was less steep, I just re-fueled, but I was crashing.  Pretty soon, I was almost settling into a sickened rest step - move a few steps forward, stop and try to breathe, move a few more, stop and try to breath again, ad nauseum, literally.  I feel a little bad on almost every hike at some point from the MVP, but this was worse than usual, especially given the contrast with how great I felt on the way up.   I was well acclimatized by now too, given that this was the last trip of many this season and having already spent two nights at some altitude prior to the hike.

I finally crested the Royce Lakes saddle and was left breathless by the beautiful view.  Oh wait, I was already breathless, but the view really was gorgeous

View of Feather Peak as One Enters Royce Lakes Basin

I stopped to sit down and rest.  It was then that I realized just how bad I felt.  I was having some chest discomfort/tightness, breathing was irregular and labored, and my head felt kind of light.  Not too mention, I was completely alone up here.  I started to get a bit concerned. 

I weighed my options.  I still had a ways to go to climb Merriam Peak.  I was probably 7 miles from the car.  I didn't feel like I could go forward and it was really going to suck to have to go back after coming this far.  I just sat there not sure what to do and not really feeling like doing anything.  I wasn't even totally sure I was okay.

It eventually occurred to me that I was originally playing with the idea of returning from the other side of the basin.  The Royce-Merriam saddle, which I had to surmount if I was going to climb the peak, was in the middle of this loop.  I could head in that direction to check it out and, if I still don't feel well, I could just keep going and head back down, while hardly adding on any mileage.  Lastly, if I was about to blink out of earthly existence, I couldn't think of a better place to check out of this world.  This lovely alpine lake basin almost looked like Heaven anyhow.

I shouldered my pack and inched forward very slowly through the basin.  It didn't seem like I was feeling much better with the rest I just had. As I made my way around the next lake, I felt a little better just as Royce-Merriam saddle popped into view.  I'm not sure if that timing was devious, or fortuitous.  Either way, I thought, hell, I might as well try to get to the saddle, as some unknown force pulled me in that direction, further from my car, but closer to adventure - maybe more than I was looking for, though.  The terrain looked nasty from a distance, but turned out to be not all that bad.  As the going got steeper, I actually started to feel a little better and I made it to the saddle and the gorgeous views of La Salle Lake on the far side.

I still felt pretty crappy and the slope up Merriam looked long, steep and tiring.  But, I was less than a mile away.  I had to try.  It probably took over an hour to do that final slope, crawling slower than a turtle up and over each boulder, but I finally made it to the summit.

I rested and enjoyed a good re-fueling, while soaking in the views.  It was hard to believe I even made it.  After a while, I headed back down.  I was looking over at Royce Peak on the other side of the saddle when a thought came across my mind to try that one too.  Just as quickly another thought crossed my mind, "Hang on there big guy!  Be grateful you didn't have a heart attack, now get your dumb-ass down the mountain."  Suddenly, the unknown force was pulling me down the mountain.  Or, perhaps that was just me no longer fighting the force of gravity, but rather was going with it.

Heading Back Down Merriam Peak
That was the first time I ever felt better as I headed up higher into thinner air.  I still have no idea what was going on that day, but continued to feel better as I headed down and was completely rejuvenated when I got back to the car. I've never had such a striking contrast between feeling so unusually good and so unusually bad, while out hiking/climbing.  The mysterious nature of living with Mitral Valve Prolapse.

I later found out that it was Charles and Mary in the parking lot.  They had managed to sleep through my car alarm and thought I was still sleeping when they woke up.  They hung around in the parking lot, waiting for me to wake up. Until, Charles went over to my car around 7AM, only to find out I wasn't in there!  We decided to put a bit more effort into planning our meet ups from then on.

One thing I enjoy about these trips is planning them.  Sitting at my computer and playing with Google Earth and the Topo maps and figuring out where to go next is always enjoyable.  I guess that takes some mystery out of it too, but it's fun.  I may have explored more of the Sierra in my imagination, than I have on foot!

Google Earth of Merriam Peak Dayhike

Topo Map of Merriam Peak Dayhike

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Middle Way - Part I, Introductory Ideas

This series of posts is going to be an attempt to partially introduce a few of my ideas on religion and God, while also talking about a couple ideas that I find really neat to think about.  We'll build up to one that I've been thinking about a lot lately - Interdependent Co-Arising, which we'll talk about in Part II. I'm not trying to convince anyone that anything in this post is the absolute Truth.  Think of it more as an entertaining story and if you get something meaningful out of it – great!

I consider myself a Christian, but I don’t necessarily like to ascribe labels to myself, since they have a tendency to narrowly define what I am about.  Mainly, I was raised in a Christian culture, so it’s the religion that speaks to me the most, but I don’t feel any one religion is the sole path to Truth and/or God.  (I'll save another blog post for digging into Christianity more, but I will leave an Alan Watts video at the end of this post that I think sums up things fairly well, even if I don't quite agree with all of it)

It has been exhaustively demonstrated by comparative mythologists like Joseph Campbell, by psychologists like Carl Jung and by philosophers like Alan Watts and similar folks, that all religions are “saying” the same thing.  The idea is that there are two levels of meaning to religious thinking – denotative and connotative.  Denotative meaning is basically literal meaning.  On the surface, religions can seem to be very different at this level.  This is due to cultural nuances and how mythic/religious thinking transforms over time.  Symbolism, which all religion is rife with, is not meant to be taken solely literally.  As Carl Jung said, “Symbols have one foot planted in the world and the other in the Infinite.”  On the connotative, or symbolic, level, all religions are saying the same thing.  They are all referencing the same transcendent reality.  Joseph Campbell speaks of universal Motifs across religions and Carl Jung of mythological Archetypes, which he has shown also appear in dreams (of atheists, even!).  Meanwhile, the majority of humanity are stuck on the metaphor, taking it all too literal, not seeing what the metaphor is referencing and fighting amongst ourselves.

This does all make for an interesting study called comparative mythology. As Campbell says: "... universals are never experienced in a pure state, abstracted from their locally conditioned ethnic applications.  It is, in fact, in their infinitely various metamorphoses that their fascination resides"

There is an old Indian tale, which tells of a group of blind men all touching a different part of an elephant.  Each thinks his specific part captures the full nature of the elephant, of which they are completely unaware.  They argue amongst themselves incessantly that the other does not understand what an elephant really is.  In one version a sighted man eventually walks by and explains the whole elephant to them and it is only then that the men realize they were blind.  We all fall victim to this to some extent.  But, substitute a major religion for each blind man and God for the elephant and there you have it - a great illustration for some of the problems in the world today.

Blind Men Arguing Over The Nature of An Elephnat

Perhaps the “big” elephant analogy is fitting, because I think God is ultimately “bigger” than religion.  Etymologically speaking, the term religion potentially comes from the Latin religio, which means to "link, or bind", although the origins are somewhat obscure. Regardless, religion has been viewed as a tool for linking us back to God.  The Buddhists have a wonderful metaphor illustrating this principle.  There are two Buddhist views of thought – the Hinayana and the Mahayana.  The term yana means vehicle, or conveyance; while, hina and maha, mean lesser, or greater, respectively.   Within Mahayana, specifically, is the Wisdom of the Yonder Shore, prajnaparamita, or perfection of wisdom.  Analogously speaking, the majority of us are on one side of a river.  The river represents the spiritual journey and the Yonder Shore - our destination - is Nirvana, or the Kingdom of Heaven.  Religion is the raft, or the vehicle, which conveys us to the Yonder Shore.  The journey is metaphorical for an inner transformation, or shift in consciousness.  When you finally do arrive to the far shore, you don’t put the raft on your back and carry it around.  Likewise, doctrine and ritual serve to bring about a spiritual experience, or awakening of consciousness.  The emphasis should be on the experience, not the tools (doctrine, ritual, etc) that helped to achieve that experience.  Nietzsche said, "The Christian is a man who behaves like everyone else".  He meant that in the West we too often forget to use our religion as a tool for inner transformation.

In Eastern Philosophy, one also eventually encounters the idea of "pairs of opposites" symbolized best in the Yin-Yang symbol.  The idea is that spacetime, or the Universe, is the field of action, where the interplay of all pairs of opposites – male/female, war/peace, good/evil, cause/effect, etc.  - are the forces and dynamics that play out the great Cosmic Drama.  For example, if one never experienced anything other than happiness, the concept happiness need not be invented.  It is only against the contrast with sorrow that makes us appreciate happiness.  How could one talk about black, without white?  "Life comes in shades of grey".  Some of this would be similar to explaining what color is to a person born blind.  Without a reference for contrast, certain experiences are impossible and certain concepts would be superfluous, at best.  Lastly, it is only through the experience, or knowledge, of Evil that makes striving after Good possible, and perhaps even worthwhile.

This is somewhat encompassed by the story of the Garden of Eden, where man ate fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and are expelled from the Garden.  Prior to the expulsion they were ignorant of gender difference, male and female, and the concepts of good and evil and they walked with God "in the cool of the day".  This story is symbolic for a transformation of consciousness from a blissful state of unity with God to a state of separation and differentiation. Satan takes the form of a serpent in this tale.  Since as early as 30,000 BC, the serpent has been viewed  as a symbol for transformation due to the way the serpent sheds its skin and is "born anew".  Here again, as Man undergoes a tremendous transformation, gaining knowledge of good and evil and thereby the ability to exercise free will, the serpent appears. Interestingly, Lucifer in Latin means "bringer of light".

Temptation and Expulsion, Garden of Eden

In the West, we often get stuck on the opposites, resulting in an eternal struggle between one side and the other, with no possible resolution in sight.  God must be male, and He must represent Absolute Good, which immediately implies an Absolute Evil side of the spectrum.  We end up with a split between polar opposites.  As a result, we have ideas of an eternal Hell where souls burn forever, while the rest are in Heaven for a period of time that never ceases (Even this must get boring, after an aeon, or two. More on this below!).  It's the ultimate schism, or the ultimate game of Us vs. Them (another pair of opposites!).  In the meantime, how can God encompass everything if there is an eternally damned, irredeemable Evil?  Does this Evil exist outside of God?  If so, God is not all there Is.  Instead “something” contains them both. Or, is this Evil part of God?  If so, how can part of God be eternally damned?  We often view ourselves, nature and God as all separate from, and often at odds with, each other.  Zen teacher, D.T. Suzuki, when introduced to Christianity, once said: "God against Man; Man against God; Man against Nature, Nature against Man; Nature Against God, God against Nature; very funny religion!"

In the East, they are explicitly more subtle about it all.  The Middle Way is the path to liberation described by the Buddha and it cuts right down the middle of all pairs of opposites.  The Middle Way has several profound concepts behind it - some we already touched on, with more coming up, but this whole blog post will hardly break the surface.

Heinrich Zimmer tells a wonderful allegory that expands the river analogy some more, using the concepts of Samsara and Nirvana.  Samsara is the wheel of life, which we are bound to by karma, resulting in the round of rebirths.  Nirvana is enlightenment, or liberation from Samsara.  They are, of course, represented by opposite shores of a river.  Anyhow, a young ambitious monk, tired of the world, sets off from the shore of Samsara in his little ferry across a river. Halfway across the river, the monk can't quite make out either shore very well, both being too far away. This represents the state of limbo - not completely attached to the world anymore, but not quite liberated yet, either. But, finally, in great jubilation he begins to see rather clearly the far shore, Nirvana, and he eventually lands his little ferry on the shore, and decides to look back and see what the shore of Samsara looks like from this exalted viewpoint. But, when he looks back, the far shore is gone, the river is gone, the ferry is gone, and he's no longer even standing on a shore! He then realizes, there never was any river, there never was any Samsara, or Nirvana, there never was an "ego", and lastly there never was even a Buddha! He is beyond all pairs of opposites, and all forms of differentiation. He has realized, as they say in Buddhism, that "All things are Buddha things." This is partly why the Buddha is conspicuously missing in artistic works in certain stages of Buddhism. Samsara and Nirvana are pairs of opposites too. If you're still grasping for Nirvana trying to escape Samsara, you're in tension between a pair of opposites, while the true ground of “Nirvana” is beyond all that.

The Second Noble Truth of Buddhism is that fear and desire cause suffering.  But, if one tries to break free of this by "desiring not to desire", you're still stuck.  The advice is to let it all go. Nirvana is right here and now! We just don’t know it.  This same truth is expressed in Christianity in the Gnostic Gospel of St Thomas:  “The Kingdom of Heaven is spread out upon the Earth and men do not see it”.  All that is required to "see" is a shift in consciousness.  Easier said, than done, though.  Right?

The following piece of Indian art from 8th century AD also illustrates all of these ideas.  It is of Shiva Maheshvara - the personification of the fullness of the Absolute.  The two heads on either side are male and female, and are representative of all pairs of opposites.  The head down the middle is the ground of all being beyond all pairs of opposites, but also the eviternal source from which they all spring.  Despite their pantheistic appearance, Indian religions are actually monotheistic at their core, because everything is viewed as a manifestation of the Divine in a similar fashion. Different gods are just particular manifestations of various differentiated energies of the one God, or the undifferentiated transcendent Source of all things.

Shiva Maheshvara

There are interesting ideas that can be taken out of physics, which parallel all this.  For  example, it is assumed that space and time itself were created in the Big Bang.  Therefore, one cannot ask what came “before” the Big Bang, because the question loses meaning outside linear time.  String Theory seems to be telling us that at the smallest of size scales the concepts of space and time lose meaning and there may be a more fundamental level to reality.  One can see that many pairs of opposites arise from within the experience of linear time, or are dependent upon an experience of linear time.  The concepts before and after depend upon linear time.  The concepts creation and destruction depend upon linear time.  And, since cause always comes before effect, our traditional interpretation of cause and effect also depends upon linear time. 

Some ideas in modern physics are already showing that reality may be far richer than allowing time to flow in just one direction.  Part of the enigma of Quantum Mechanics (QM) is the probabilistic nature of its predictions.  A formulation of QM called Time-Symmetric QM (TSQM) says if there is not enough information in a particle’s past to fully determine its fate, perhaps that’s because it does not yet exist!  Perhaps, the remaining information lies in the future!  TSQM features two state-vectors, or wave functions – one propagates from the past to the present, and one propagates from the future to the present, allowing for a type of retrocausal influence without violating our normal notions of cause and effect.   What happens now, depends not just on information from the past, but also from the future.  It’s theories such as these that make reality seem far more conducive for allowing anomalous phenomenon like psi, which I briefly discuss here.  It wouldn’t be all that surprising if we get insights into space and time that completely revolutionize how we view them, providing a view on reality far richer than perhaps we can imagine.

We can begin to see that if we limit our ideas of God to concepts that are restricted to linear time, than we limit what we can see of God.  If God exists outside linear time, the question, "How was God created?", or "Where/when did He come from?", no longer apply.  It's like asking "What came "before" the Big Bang?". Whenever one gets stuck in an infinite regression of logic that seems to lead nowhere it usually shows the wrong question is being asked and a new way of thinking about the problem is needed.   If these kinds of questions don’t make sense, then viewing God as the old man in the sky, or male/female, in general, also suddenly seem very limiting.  This is conceptualizing, in an anthropomorphic fashion, an aspect of reality that is beyond all human language and concepts.

Heinrich Zimmer once said, "A person's God is his ultimate limit".  The highest we can imagine, or the most we can mentally perceive, is typically encapsulated by our image of God.  This blog post partially encapsulates my image of God, which also falls short.  As we evolve, so should our image of God evolve.  However, as Meister Eckhart says, "The ultimate leave taking is the leaving of God for God", suggesting to let go of our ideas of God, in order to gain direct experience and identification with the God-head.  Alan Watts even warns of a modern-day idolatry, "[These days] nobody in his senses is going to confuse a wooden image with God, but you can very easily confuse a set of ideas with God, because concepts are more rarefied and abstract"

God As The Old Bearded Man

This also brings us to a view where Eternity is not never-ending time, but rather the complete absence of linear time.  Now, try to wrap your mind around what it's like to exist outside linear time!  As crazy as it sounds, this is exactly what we're hearing out of reports from people who have had Near Death Experiences, which I talk about here, and here.  It sounds less like complete cessation of action and more of a spontaneous happening of everything.  Folks talk about life reviews that cover every moment of their lives in detail, which are previewed in one sudden flash of "Now"!  As Albert Einstein said, "the only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once".  All of existence in a single moment where everything is happening in an eternal now, with no beginning and no end. Time slows things down and helps differentiate between a past and future, allowing for a unique experience.  Even so, since all we ever truly have is the present, eternity is right here and now in this very moment!

"If time is not real, then the dividing line between this world and eternity, between suffering and bliss, between good and evil, is also an illusion." ~Herman Hesse

"For eternally and always there is only now, one and the same now; the present is the only thing that has no end" ~Erwin Schrodinger

This wraps up Part I.  Stay tuned for Part II - Interdependent Co-Arising!


Alan Watts on Christianity, as promised (the other 5 parts can be found on YouTube)

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Black Bean & Roasted Sweet Potato Burger with Mayan Chocolate Drink

Rebecca and I were in the mood for something Mexican, so we put our heads to gether and tried to figrue out what to make.  Seemed like for every recipe we thought of, we were short one ingredient.  Finally, we remembered a vegan burger recipe from Kris Carr's "Crazy, Sexy Kitchen" book.  It was the Black Bean and Roasted Sweet Potato Burger.

We're not really vegan, but we do like many of the recipes and have been trying to focus on having a more plant-based, alkaline diet.  The other night Rebecca made a vegan Mac and Cheese dish and then threw some chicken on it for me.  So, kinda vegan, kinda not.

Those vegans are tricky, though, I tell you.  Mac and Cheese, without cheese.  Taco meat, without meat.  All these healthy substitutes that are delicious and don't taste a whole lot different than the real thing.

To top this meal off, we also made the Mayan Chocolate Drink from Julie Morris' Superfood Smoothies.  Overall, not a Mexican meal, but it was an interesting combo, with some kind of "southwestern" feel to it.

First thing we had to do was get the toppings ready.

We also decided to make a mix of potato and beet chips for a side dish.  Beets are so crazy looking some times.

Then the rest of these ingredients needed to be prepared and processed to make the burger "meat".

  • 1 sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks (about 1 cup)
  • 2 tablespoons coconut oil
  • ½ cup finely diced onion
  • 2 cups cooked black beans
  • 1 cup cooked brown rice
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • ½ tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons Tamari
  • 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce (vegan, if preferred)
  • 2 tablespoons bread crumbs

Just need to cook the rice, roast the sweet potatos until tender and combine everything in a food processor.  Don't overprocess!  Then, shape the meat into patties, place them into a skillet and cook until both sides are lightly browned.

Of course, we were still missing one ingredient.  Hamburger buns!  But, we have a bread that works pretty well when toasted, so we used that.

Here's the final product with the beet/potato chips on the side.  I'm gonna have to say the burger itself looked much yummier in person.

Lastly, the Mayan Chocolate drink. This guy is really easy to make.  Just combine the following ingredients into a blender and blend until smooth.

  • ¼ cup Medjool dates, about 3-4
  • 2 tablespoons almond butter
  • 3 tablespoons cacao nibs
  • 1 tablespoon cacao powder
  • 1 tablespoons Chia seed
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne powder
  • ¼ teaspoon cinnamon powder
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 ⅓ cups water

Then, mix in 2 cups of ice and blend until frosty.  This makes for a chilled chocolaty treat, with a spicy, exotic zeal.

Mayan Chocolate Drink

Chai Smoothie

Julie Morris recently came out with her new book Superfood Smoothies and it looks to contain a lot of really good mixes.  I pre-ordered the book for Rebecca as a gift a ways back, since I figured she would love a copy.  After looking through it, several recipes caught my eye too.  This one is the Chai smoothie and it was delicious! 

Rebecca and I made this one together yesterday.  First thing we had to do was grind the Cardamom Seeds into a powder.  You can buy this in powdered form, but we happened to be all out, hence the grinding.  It was kind of fun doing it anyhow!

Getting Ready To Grind The Cardamon Seeds

These guys are spicy little suckers!  Their spiciness even wafts up into your nose while grinding them.

Grind, Grind, Grind ... Grinding the Cardamom Seeds

Combine all of the following ingredients and mix until smooth.

  • 3 tablespoons raw cashews
  • 2 tablespoons hemp seeds
  • 2 large Medjool dates, pitted
  • 2 tablespoons cacao nibs
  • 1 tablespoon chia seeds
  • 2 teaspoons maca powder
  • ¼ teaspoon chlorella, or wheatgrass, powder
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon powder
  • 1 teaspoon ginger powder
  • ¼ teaspoon cardamom powder
  • 2 cups coconut powder

Then, when you're ready add in:

  • 1 frozen banana
  • 1 ½ cups ice
  • stevia, to taste (optional)

and mix until frosty.

Get ready to enjoy a nice frosty smoothy with the warm spicy flavor of chai!

Chai Smoothie

I think this one might be one of my new favorite drinks.  It really hit the spot.  With the chia seeds, hemp seeds, cacao, maca and wheatgrass, it's quite the healthy mix too.

Chai Smoothie

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Eben Alexander - A Neurosurgeon's NDE

Update: I wrote an article on the recent Eben Alexander, Esquire ruckus, which can be found here.

I used to shrug in disinterest when I would hear about stories about Near Death Experiences (NDEs) and other things along those lines.  It wasn't because I didn't think it was possible - I did!  It was more because I wasn't sure how we could ever objectively know whether it was true, or just hallucination.  However, with serious scientific studies now being done on NDEs, like the AWARE project, combined with very noteworthy folks now claiming to have had NDEs and just with the sheer number of cases (in the millions!) that are now out there, I got interested.  At this point, it seems like it would be blatantly unscientific not to consider what's going on here.

This post is about Eben Alexander - a "man of science" - who had his own NDE and consequently a complete about-face on how he previously viewed NDEs.  I personally think it's a pretty remarkable story.  Apparently, much of the public agrees, as it has been on most major news channels, many radio stations and all across the Internet.  His book, Proof of Heaven, was also #1 on the New York Times best seller list.

The NDE itself wasn't a clincher in showing the experience had to happen independent of the brain.  However, part of what made this story special was Eben Alexander's background.  He is a respected neurosurgeon who taught at Harvard for 15+ years and has over 100 scientific publications and articles written in the field.  He was also a "skeptic" and due to the paths life had taken him down, one who fell into disbelief of any kind of life beyond the one we currently know of.  Like most doctors, he was familiar with NDE stories, but dismissed them as hallucination, at best.  However, after having his own NDE, his views completely changed.

It's very obvious Dr. Alexander has put a lot of honest effort into trying to figure out what happened to him.  In his attempt to try and understand what happened to him, he came up with 9 different scientific hypotheses, which he eventually concluded all fall short of explaining NDEs.  He's now devoting his life to the study of this and other similar phenomenon related to exploring the mystery of consciousness.

Dr. Alexander remembered many rich details from the NDE, which I will let him tell in his own words in a few videos I will include in this post.  The following 20/20 video is a nice summary of Dr. Alexander's NDE.  To all the tough guys out there, tell me you weren't at least a little moved by the ending of that one.  ;-)

Dr. Alexander's Near Death Experience was brought on by bacterial meningitis, which left him in a coma for 7 days.  His brain was in a truly bad state of affairs.  An MRI showed the entire surface of his neocortex was inflamed and covered in pus, a result of being under attack from the bacterial infection.  The cerebrospinal fluid glucose level of a normal healthy person is around 80 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl).  A level of 20 mg/dl puts one in danger of imminent death.  Dr. Alexander had a level of 1.  This means the bacteria had eaten all the available glucose and were now munching on his neocortex.  Cerebrospinal fluid is normally a clear watery substance.  Even the slightest opacity in the the fluid  would be an indication of infection.  When they performed the spinal tap to check the condition of Dr Alexanders fluid, it didn't leak out like cerebrospinal normally would . It gushed out, due to the high pressure in his brain.  On top of that, what gushed out was not fluid-like at all - it was pus.  During his coma, the guttural groans and other primitive reflexes also began to diminish, indicating even the deepest, most primitive layer of his brain - the brain stem - was shutting down.  At the beginning of the 7 days of coma, he had a 10% chance of survival, but would most likely remain in a vegetative state forever.  By the end of the week, the doctors and family were ready to pull the plug.  Miraculously, Eben came out of the coma and has had a full recovery.  That, in itself, is a mystery, if not also, a miracle.

As I mentioned, we don't really know when his NDE happened during that time period.  There was no veridical OBE component allowing us to time stamp and verify any part of the experience as objectively real.  There were a couple events during his NDE when Dr Alexander felt he was connected with his family and "real events", but these are vague enough to leave most people unsure.  In the meantime, this leaves skeptics open to claim it happened during a reboot of the brain as he came out of the coma.  Here's the problem with that explanation, though.  Patients who fall ill with bacterial meningitis, or similar conditions, do indeed end up going through a sort of reboot process.  As the brain comes back online and the various areas start to communicate again, patients typically go through a very confused state of affairs, which is called ICU psychosis.  Dr. Alexander remembers going through this and confirmed he was pretty far out of it, as to be expected.  However, he also remembers his NDE, as a hyper-real, crystal-clear lucid experience, with near-prefect memory recall.  Why would the brain be able to produce a hyper-real, crystal-clear lucid experience at an earlier time, during coma, when it was even more impaired?  You wake up from a coma because the brain has presumably healed itself enough to regain "waking" consciousness, but it's still not a fully-functioning consciousness at that point in time.  It is disconnected, to say the least, which is why one goes through ICU psychosis.  So, how did he have an ultra-real, lucid experience when his brain was even more impaired than this?

A popular model of the brain that is starting to rise in popularity for attempting to explain phenomenon like the Near Death Experience, is the transmission/antenna model.  (There are really two models - commonly called the transmission and filter models - with subtle differences, but I will speak loosely  here as if they are the same, since  I won't go into enough details for it to matter).  Surprisingly, these ideas have been around for quite some time, first postulated by early psychologists like William James and F.W.H Meyers in late 1800s and early 1900s.  The essential idea is that the brain does not produce consciousness, but rather is a receiver of consciousness.  The popular analogy is that of a TV antenna, which is not the source of the TV program, but rather receives the broadcast signal.   When scientists look at the brain lighting up under an fMRI and associate certain parts of the brain with particular mental functions, under these models, this would be viewed as correlation and not causation.  There is a very distinct difference here.  Also, even though most mainstream scientists would view brain activity as the cause of consciousness, there is currently no known theory that explains how the brain produces consciousness.  That means there is no strong scientific basis for choosing one model (a brain-produces-consciousness model vs a brain-as-receiver-of-consciousness model) over the other.  The only real reason is that one might fit better into the current worldview (materialism) than the other. 

There is gathering evidence in support of the transmission and filter models.  One recent study was done in the UK on psilocybin, or hallucinogenic mushrooms.  Since psilocybin produces an intense conscious experience, one would assume the brain should be lighting up like a Christmas tree under an fMRI scanner.  What they found was the exact opposite.  Psilocybin actually inhibited blood flow to certain areas of the brain and less activity was seen overall on the fMRI.  One explanation in line with the models above is that the brain acts as a filter, or reducing valve, in its role as a receiver of consciousness.  As the filter is loosened, or deactivated, in this case by decreased blood flow, consciousness can expand and experience non-brain-induced states.  Therefore, the brain normally acts to limit the totality of perceptions consciousness is able to experience, perhaps to not overwhelm and allow us to efficiently operate in the physical world.  One can place this in accord with evolution, because it has obvious survival advantages.  Anyhow, an NDE like Dr. Alexander's, where the brain is mostly offline, or completely offline, would just be an extreme case where the filter is torn down altogether. The AWARE study, which I discussed in an earlier post, could offer the most convincing and striking evidence for these models, as it could show that consciousness can operate completely independent of the brain.  This may happen in the next few years.

As crazy as all that may sound, there are even ideas in physics that suggest consciousness may be an irreducible, or fundamental element, of reality.  One such theory is Orchestrated Objective Reduction (Orch-OR) formulated by acclaimed mathematical physicist Sir Roger Penrose and his colleague, anesthesiologist, Stuart Hameroff.  Rest assured, I will have a post on this topic at some point!

I think models along these lines have a higher potential of ultimately explaining NDEs, as opposed to using solely the kind of physiological explanations Michael Shermer mentioned in the above video.  There are pilots on record who have had NDEs and say the g-machines can't come close to fully explaining what they experienced in their NDE, contrary to what Shermer says.  Oxygen deprivation may be the most popular conventional explanation.  But, oxygen deprivation leads to confusion and delirium, not the well structured, lucid thought process reported in NDEs.  Another popular one is the drug Ketamine, often used in hospitals. But Ketamine usually leads to unpleasant experiences, not the extremely pleasant experiences reported in NDEs.  Unfortunately, direct subject reports like these, which contradict the common physiological explanations, are too often ignored.  There are other attempts at conventional explanations for the NDE, all of which currently fall short of explaining the phenomenon.  It has also been shown that the NDE experience has consistent universal themes across all cultures, religions and age groups, making theories, such as cultural conditioning and expectation unlikely, as well.

Most of the common physiological explanations do, of course, share some similarities to the NDE phenomenon.  When viewed under the filter model, they should.  Again, one could say drugs like DMT and psilocybin loosen the filter (i.e brain), whereas an NDE tears down the filter altogether.  Therefore, on a basic level, drug experiences, oxygen deprivation, etc., all share similarities with NDEs, but could never fully account for the entirety of the NDE experience, which is exactly the problem we see.  It's also important to keep in mind the physiological explanations for an NDE are dependent upon having a functioning neocortex.  More and more cases are coming out that strongly suggest these NDEs are happening during a time when the neocortex is either offline, or severely impaired.

Eben Alexander's nine hypotheses probably constitute one of the more exhaustive attempts to come up with a brain-based theory.  This probably seemed like a natural first line of attack to a neurosurgeon like Dr. Alexander, but he found them all lacking in providing a full and consistent explanation of the NDE phenomenon. Much like consciousness, the Near Death Experience remains a profound mystery.  Dr Alexander has, however, made the bold step of going with what starts to seem like the simplest hypothesis - perhaps, consciousness, or our soul, is eternal.  Well, it sounds bold, perhaps taboo, but even worse, it sounds {shudder} spiritual.  But, is it really all that different from the Orch-OR model of Penrose and Hameroff?

The following video is a full-length interview from the Skeptiko podcast by Alex Tsakiris, which goes into the details of the NDE itself in much greater detail.

Eben Alexander's Nine Hypotheses and Why He Says They Fail to Explain His NDE**

For those interested in the nitty, gritty, this section contains details on the 9 hypotheses Dr. Alexander came up with.  His second book is supposed to cover them in much greater detail.

I have content from the book in quotes and my comments, if any, in italics.

(1)  "A primitive brain-stem program to ease terminal pain and suffering.  This did not explain the robust, richly interactive nature of the recollections."  I would add the question of how a dying organism would have time to pass on genes to replicate this behavior.

(2) "The distorted recall of memories from deeper parts of the limbic system that have enough overlying brain to be relatively protected from the meningitic inflammation, which occurs mostly at the surface.  This did not explain the robust, richly interactive nature of the recollection"

(3)  "Endogenous glutamate blockade with excitotoxicity, mimicking the hallucinatory anesthetic, ketamine (occasionally used to explain NDEs in general).  I occasionally saw the effects of ketamine used as an anesthetic during the earlier part of my neurosurgical career at Harvard Medical School. The hallucinatory state it induced was most chaotic and unpleasant, and bore no resemblance whatsoever to my experience in coma."

(4) "N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) “dump” (from the pineal, or elsewhere in the brain).  DMT, a naturally occurring serotonin agonist (specifically at the 5-HT1A, 5-HT2A and 5-HT2C receptors), causes vivid hallucinations and a dreamlike state. I am personally familiar with drug experiences related to serotonin agonist/antagonists (that is, LSD, mescaline) from my teen years in the early 1970s. I have had no personal experience with DMT but have seen patients under its influence. The rich ultra-reality would still require fairly intact auditory and visual neocortex as target regions in which to generate such a rich audiovisual experience as I had in coma. Prolonged coma due to bacterial meningitis had badly damaged my neocortex, which is where all of that serotonin from the raphe nuclei in the brainstem (or DMT, a serotonin agonist) would have had effects on visual/auditory experience. But my cortex was off, and the DMT would have had no place in the brain to act. The DMT hypothesis failed on the basis of the ultra-reality of the audiovisual experience, and lack of cortex on which to act."  I would also add that listening to accounts of folks who have used Ahayuasca, which contains DMT, gives the distinct impression that the experience is not wholly similar to NDEs

(5)  "Isolated preservation of cortical regions might have explained some of my experience, but were most unlikely, given the severity of my meningitis and its refractoriness to therapy for a week: peripheral white blood cell [WBC] count over 27,000 per mm3, 31 percent bands with toxic granulations, CSF WBC count over 4,300 per mm3, CSF glucose down to 1.0 mg/dl, CSF protein 1,340 mg/dl, diffuse meningeal involvement with associated brain abnormalities revealed on my enhanced CT scan, and neurological exams showing severe alterations in cortical function and dysfunction of extraocular motility, indicative of brain stem damage."

(6)  "In an effort to explain the “ultra-reality” of the experience, I examined this hypothesis: Was it possible that networks of inhibitory neurons might have been predominantly affected, allowing for unusually high levels of activity among the excitatory neuronal networks to generate the apparent “ultra-reality” of my experience?  Given the prolonged course of my poor neurological function (seven days) and the severity of my infection, it is unlikely that even deeper layers of the cortex were still functioning"

(7)  "The thalamus, basal ganglia, and brainstem are deeper brain structures (“subcortical regions”) that some colleagues postulated might have contributed to the processing of such hyperreal experiences. In fact, none of those structures could play any such role without having at least some regions of the neocortex still intact. All agreed in the end that such subcortical structures alone could not have handled the intense neural calculations required for such a richly interactive experiential tapestry."

(8)  "A 'Reboot Phenomenon' – reboot phenomenon”—a random dump of bizarre disjointed memories due to old memories in the damaged neocortex, which might occur on restarting the cortex into consciousness after a prolonged system-wide failure, as in my diffuse meningitis. Especially given the intricacies of my elaborate recollections, this seems most unlikely."  Also, see my discussion on ICU psychosis above.

(9)  "Unusual memory generation through an archaic visual pathway through the midbrain, prominently used in birds but only rarely identifiable in humans. It can be demonstrated in humans who are cortically blind, due to damaged occipital cortex. It provided no clue as to the ultra-reality I witnessed, and failed to explain the auditory-visual interleaving."

 **All taken from Eben Alexander's book, Proof of Heaven

Life Beyond Death, Dr Eben Alexander

Purple Punch Antioxidant Elixir

I've been loving the Acai and Maqui Berry recipes we've been making lately, like the Breakfast Bowl I already wrote a blog entry on, so I thought let's try and make a little something of my own using these guys.  I wanted to make an anti-oxidant, free-radical butt-kicking, powerhouse of a beverage.  Given the reputed age-defying properties of many antioxidant containing fruits and considering how many I squeezed into this one beverage, I decided it was more fitting to call it an Elixir.  ;-)


[ih-lik-ser] noun
Also called elixir of life. an alchemical preparation formerly believed to be capable of prolonging life. 

Purple Punch Antioxidant Elixir

The official name is the Purple Punch Antioxidant Elixir.  (Although, admittedly, it is very smoothie-like in its consistency and flavor) 

As mentioned, I figured why go for just the Acai and Maqui Berry, so I tried adding in a few other fruits that seemed like they would all go well together, like Blueberries, Mulberries and Pomegranate.  Here's the ingredient line-up:
  • 1 frozen Banana
  • 1 cup frozen Blueberries
  • 1 cup Chia Gel
  • ¼ cup Mulberries (½ cup is even better!)
  • 2 tbsp Acai Powder
  • 1 tbsp Maqui Powder
  • 1 tbsp Pomegranate Powder
  • 2 cup Coconut Water
  • 1 tsp Coconut Palm Sugar (optional)
  • 2 Dr. Mercola Purple Defense Capsules (Just pry apart capsules and add in powder)

To make the Chia gel, just had ¼ cup Chia Seed to 1 cup of Coconut Water.  Let it sit for 20 mins, stirring occasionally, while the Chia Seeds absorb the liquid.  It looks a little gross when it's done, but it gives the drink a nice consistency and a refreshing zeal to it, in my opinion.  That, and Chia Seed is good for you!

The Dr. Mercola Purple Defense is a Resveratrol supplement.  Each capsule contains as much Resveratrol as 39 glasses of wine.  Resveratrol seems to get the anti-aging reputation more so than most other antioxidants, which might be because it seems to have the most scientific research backing up that claim.

Mulberries, on top of being delicious, are also pretty high in Resveratrol.

Also, an exciting piece of news for the Thomas household - we have a new blender!  Yep, doesn't take much to get us excited around here, I guess.  We got a new Professional Series Vitamix and it's pretty nice.  Self-cleaning and could probably blend granite, if we put some in there.

Our Fancy New Vitamix Blender

Throw all the ingredients above into your blender and go!  You should end up with a purply looking concoction that amounts to about 2 servings.

I haven't tried yet, but this might also go well with a full tablespoon of the Pomegranate powder, without getting too tangy.  Also, 2 tablespoons of Maqui would probably taste awfully good, but I stuck with 1 tablespoon because the Maqui Berry powder is pretty expensive.

Rebecca helped me with these pictures again.  You can probably guess which one I took, right?  Yes, it was the blender one.  Although, I think I'm on to her secrets now and can probably learn something and start taking my own. 

Purple Punch Antioxidant Elixir

Purple Punch Antioxidant Elixir

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Smith Mountain (5,913'), Death Valley, April 6th, 2013

Friday night found me behind the wheel heading out in the direction of Death Valley, for a fun-filled couple days.  I was feeling a bit tired and have had some interesting night-time drives out there in Panamint Valley, usually in the wee hours of the morning, though, when the mind is still in a dreamy state.

Driving through the desert at night can play tricks on the eyes and mind.  Space and time become distorted.  If there is one thing the desert has plenty of, it's space.  Everything is bigger and further away than it appears and the landscape can open up and swallow you.  The seconds not only tick by slowly, but can disappear altogether in the vastness.  Single moments turn into an eternity.  Scraggly creosotes flying by in your headlights can make it feel like you are racing along, while at the same time the motionless, bright stars and the fixed, crisp silhouette of the desert mountains can make you feel like you're stuck in place.  A howling wind blows up that sounds like it is just as lost in this place as you are, racing around tired and frustrated trying to find a way out.  When the sun finally starts to rise it dispels the effect of this dark magic, feeling like it rescued your mind from some strange prison it was stuck in.  You leave one world and enter another, even though you're in the same place. 

This night I was headed for Smith Mountain, located in the high and isolated but charming Golden Valley in the Black Mountains. Smith Mountain towers 6000' above Bad Water, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, with Golden Valley cozily ensconced on the opposite side.  Smith's not a hard hike, coming in at around 6 miles round trip and 2,300' of gain.  It's getting to the start of the hike that's the crux, involving about 24 miles of dirt road.  The first 11-12 miles of dirt is the Greenwater Valley road, which I knew is typically in excellent condition.  The second half, along what's called the Lost Section Road, was reputed to be high-clearance, rough 4x4. 

Not too long ago, I came through on my "Dirt Bike With No Name" ride to scope the area out.  It's amazing how much easier the access is to these areas on a dirt bike.  Turned out the road is high-clearance, but there is only one, or two, spots that actually require 4x4.  The rest is pretty smooth going and this motivated me to get back out there with the hiking boots, in place of motorcycle boots.  I got much of the dirt road done that night, leaving only about 5 miles for the following day.   The Lost Section Road turned out fairly decent, as suspected.  I was probably able to average ~15 mph along its length.

Lost Section Road to Golden Valley

I spent the night in my car at the crest between Golden Valley and Greenwater Valley.  The night sky looked gorgeous, with sharp, bright stars and a crescent moon above Greenwater Valley, while the constellation Orion was slowly setting over the Black Mountains, disappearing into infinity.  I attempted to take some hand-held photos with 8-15 second exposure times.  They're not great, but hard to believe they turned out at all.  I used the car to steady myself a bit for the Orion shot and just got lucky with the moon shot.  I keep telling myself to purchase a small tripod ... maybe next time.

Orion Setting Over the Black Mountains

Crescent Moon Over Greenwater Valley
I woke up at 5:30 AM the next morning and grabbed my Chia seed cereal, which I think is my new pre-hike meal.  This time I had 1 scoop Amazing Grass Chocolate Greens powder and 1 scoop Hemp protein powder, with a bunch of cinnamon, Goji Berries and Mulberreis.  While I relaxed and ate, I kept my eyes on the sunrise with my trigger finger on the camera. 

Sunrise From Golden Valley

Sunrise From Golden Valley
It's funny because the sky changes colors and brightens ever so gradually over quite some time.  Once the sun actually crests the horizon, the show speeds up dramatically, leaving only minutes to snap a few good pictures.

I finished the drive down into Golden Valley and started out for my hike as the hills started to glow from the rising sun.  Although the Sun's rays had already touched the crest, it took another half hour, or so, before they could find their way down into the valley.

Heading Through Golden Valley Towards Smith Mountain

There's no trail to Smith, but the cross country turned out to be very pleasant.  This was appreciated after the rugged outing to Kingston Peak a few weeks back.  I slowly made my way up the side of the valley enjoying the sunrise glow on the hillsides.  This was what I needed.  A little bit of a workout and the peaceful ambiance provided by the Black Mountains and Golden Valley.  Although good company is always welcome, sometimes I do prefer these outings solo.  When your solo, everything is heightened.  If something makes you scared, you'll be that much more scared.  If something happens that is a cause for elation, you'll be that much more elated.  Your mind can settle into its own rhythm, with no outside disturbances.  The eyes can stretch as far as the horizon, but the mind can go further here.  And, just as a  noise quickly becomes muffled out in large spaces, so the desert has a quieting influence on your thoughts.  After a while, one could swear they 'hear' the desert itself.   A 'harmony' that can easily go unnoticed.

Just as I was thinking about all this, I turned around and saw another car parked along the road further up.  A rash of thoughts raced through my head.  "Hey, what are these guys doing in MY valley.  Whoa, hang on there, this IS a national park, it's not my valley.  And, look around, there's nobody else around for as far as the eye can see. So, relax, it won't hurt you to share the valley.  Besides, it's always nice to know if somebody is around in case one gets in trouble.  Heck, they're probably not even climbing Smith.  If they do, it might even be nice to shoot the breeze for a few".  I turned and settled back into my pace towards Smith Mountain and forgot about my friends below, for now.

Heading Up The Canyon

After a bit of a trek up the side of the valley, the route takes you up a canyon.  Springtime was in full swing in the canyon.  Bird song echoed off the canyon walls, while hummingbirds were busy in their morning routine.  There was a constant and almost melodic humming noise, which were bees hard at work on all the flowers blooming in the canyon.  Sometimes canyon travel can get pretty rugged, but this one was pleasant.  Every time it looked like a little bush thrashing, or rock hopping, was imminent, a clear path would show the way through.

I climbed out of the head of the canyon and ended up slightly above a small valley below the summit area.  I wound around and over a minor ridge line, or two, and then followed the main southern ridge to the summit.  The 'false summit' one passes over is actually higher than what's considered the Smith Mountain summit.  The register and benchmark were placed here because of the superior views, due to the land dropping straight down 6000' from here, all the way down to Bad Water.  Even despite the hazy day, the views were pretty darn nice.

Smith Mountain Summit View, Bad Water Below, Telescope Peak in Distance

Interesting Summit Register Entry

After a prolonged stay at the summit, I meandered my way back down the mountain.  As I emerged back out into the valley, I peered down in the direction I saw the car earlier and much to my surprise there was no car.  Just one big bush.  My mind got all worked up over an illusion it created, by turning a bush into a car.  I had a bit of a laugh and settled back into my pace letting gravity pull me down the valley.

Along the way there wildflowers everywhere.  It wasn't the kind of bloom that you can see from any great distance.  The conditions just weren't right this year for that kind of bloom.  However, there were small flowers almost everywhere in the valley that pop up once you draw closer to them.  I tried to get at least one photo of each different kind I saw. 

One of Those "Hard To Say Which" Yellow Flowers

Gilia, Maybe?

Desert Dandelion
Right after taking one of the flower pictures, I got up to keep going and suddenly heard a "Hey!" come out of nowhere behind me, giving me a good startle.  I turned around and maybe a few hundred yards away was a lone hiker waving.  We were too far away to exchange pleasantries but I gave a quick holler hello.  I started to continue on my way, but it seemed like the other guy wasn't moving. I got a funny vibe.  Maybe he wasn't just trying to say hello, because his Hey! did sound rather emphatic.  I looked back to make sure he was okay and not looking for help, but he was already walking the other way and looking back at me in the same manner.  Just a friendly person, giving a heartfelt hello.

So, there was another hiker!  But, there was no car, just a bush!  Maybe he wasn't real, either.  Just a desert mirage, my mind playing more tricks on me.  Or, maybe he was the ghost of an old time Death Valley miner.  As neat as that last theory sounds, it didn't quite add up.  For one, this old time miner looked like he just walked out of an REI catalog.  That and I don't think ghosts usually go out of their way to say hello.  Yep, just another solo hiker.

I also then realized not only was his car not visible, I could see no trace of mine, either.  The landscape must have swallowed it up and hidden it from view.  Seems like that often happens.  However, it's always somewhat of an irksome feeling.  You know the car has to be there, but that little worrisome corner of the mind has to ask, "But, what if it's not?"

This time the landscape hid my car pretty damn good and dragged out the suspense as long as possible.  It wasn't until I got within a couple hundred feet that I could finally see the top half of it.  "Phew", I thought, even though I knew how silly it was to think otherwise.

Chocolate Energy Bars

While gnawing on my 1,529,423rd Cliff Bar during my most recent hike, I had the strange desire to try something new.  Cliff Bars aren't really bad for you, but they are pretty high in sugar and I also knew I could totally kick the nutrition content up a notch, or two, with a home-made energy bar.   I was thinking of trying my own recipe, but I thought for the first go-around I should try an established one from somebody else.  I like to think I'm adventurous, but wasting a huge batch of atrociously expensive superfoods due to incompetency is where I just have to draw the line.  Thankfully, Julie Morris had a great recipe - her Chocolate Energy Bars - so, I went with those.

Chocolate Energy Bars

I threw in the extra/suggested ingredient Hemp Protein powder to kick up the protein content. I also threw in a few extra ingredients (Wheatgrass, Spirulina and the Amazing Grass powder) to make this a powerful "green" food too. Score (Me, 1; Cliff Bars, 0)

The Amazing Grass products are pretty .... amazing.  They contain quite the mix of nutritious foods and most also have a probiotic and digestive enzyme blend included, as well.  I've been having a small chocolate drink in the morning with the powder also used in this energy bar.  Also, we've been mixing their Raw Reserve (25 Billion CFU greens powder) into a drink, or two. 

Overall, these bars taste better than a Cliff Bar and less sweet, at the same time.  Score (Me, 2; Cliff Bars, 0)

However, for them to have that nice soft, gooey homemade texture, seems like they need to be consumed within a couple weeks, or frozen. This puts the final score at (Me, 2; Cliff Bars, 1), with ME being the clear winner of this obviously scientific rating system.

Alrighty then, so here is the ingredient line-up:

  • 1 ½ cups soft Medjool Dates (about 15, or 16) pits removed
  • ¼ cup raw Almonds
  • ¼ cup raw Cashews
  • ¼ cup raw Cacao powder
  • 3 tablespoons Cacao nibs
  • 6 tablespoons Hemp Seeds
  • 1 tablespoon Chia Seeds
  • 1 tablespoon Maca powder
  • 1 teaspoon Mesquite powder
  • 1 tablespoon Hemp Protein powder
  • 1 teaspoon Wheatgrass powder
  • 1 teaspoon Spirulina powder
  • 1 scoop Amazing Grass Chocolate Greens Powder

Throw all those guys into a food processor and mix until a coarse dough has formed. Mine turned out a little dry, most likely from the added ingredients, so I had to add some extra water to get the dough a little gooier. Add in about 1/2 teaspoon at a time, if you have the same problem.  Don't add in more than that each time, as it's really easy to go over and end up with a concrete ball in your food-processor

Next, pulse in the following ingredients. Pulsed in, so that they stay a little chunky in there, so don't grind it too long with these, just enough to mix them in well.  I personally found getting these guys mixed evenly a little tricky.

  • 2 tablespoons favorite raw nuts/seeds (I used sunflower and pumpkin seeds)
  • ¼ cup dried favorite dried fruit (I used Goji Berries)

Voila, now throw them in your backpack and go for a hike, climb, bicycle ride, or whatever it is that gets you outside!

Chocolate Energy Bars

Rebecca also made a delicious batch of these recently.  Check it out, here