We drove the dry, bristly foothills for five hours, enjoying the standard-issue Patagonian bus ride. Silent passengers. Plenty of backpacker BO. Not a building or soul in sight! But then we rounded what seemed like just another scruffy hill in a cosmos of scruffy hills. Except around this corner, Mother Nature stood waiting, silky lingerie at her ankles, shimmering in blinding glory.
The problem with some places, like Patagonia, is that Mother Nature’s disrobed beauty comes at you from way too many scales. It physically lambasts your mortal limits. Your sensory organs are log-jammed by bandwidth-overload all the way from the mega to the micro level. Mathematicians call this scale-invariance, or fractals.
In the mind’s eye, a fractal is a way of seeing infinity.
– James Gleick
I look upward and outward, and the weight of 100 billion stars and the Milky Way taunts my puniness. I look out over the horizon — endless snow-capped mountains dance through a parade of airy clouds, themselves a mountainous freight train of colors and textures. Beneath them, jagged blue glaciers eventually pulverizing these granite monsters into foot-sized pebbles, begging to be run upon. In the shadows – cataracts – zillions of water falls, bleeding into turquoise lakes and drinkable rivers, nourishing lush forests. Within them, explosive-red flower petals and sinewy green branches, themselves, electrified by veins pulsing like green lighting. All is alive!
I feel an irritation in my soul. I’m paralyzed by voyeurism. I feel communicated to… but utterly abandoned within the expanse of infinity that I finally FEEL in my upper and lower reaches, ripping me into oblivion.
What would a saint do? Could they possibly take it in or appreciate it any harder than I am right now? NO WAY! Maybe they’d write a psalm for a dusty book. A spider would spin a web. A beaver would build a dam. There’s no logical response. I feel spiritually bankrupt – incapable of reciprocating in whatever conversation this is. I’ve never had this conversation. I don’t speak this language. I’ve finally become what I came here to be—DUMBSTRUCK WITH WONDER. Lost for words. Lost for action. Stupefied!
I identify with Seinfeld’s George Costanza – what would make this orgasm of idealism even better? A pastrami sandwich! So, I shake an instant coffee packet into the river water in my canteen, and sit there on a boulder. Tasting coffee for the first time. Taking my first conscious breaths of 2017.
Meanwhile, the world we left behind…it keeps its hands on the 10 and 2 of its own steering wheel, fingers minding the ASDF of innumerable keyboards. They come up with clever words like “photosynthesis” and say, “AHA – That’s what’s going on here.” They messily paste these knick-knacky words on top of jaw-dropping mysteries. This part of the world prints triangles on beer cans and calls them “mountains”, which sell very well.
In this world, my brain spends most days comfortably marinating in a bathtub of yesterday’s worrisome thoughts — lukewarm word-broth. But I come down here, giddy to be stripped of artifice – butt nekked and wordlessly dumbfound.
Our words and symbol structures come with us everywhere, imposing themselves like yellow post-it notes, concealing the fabulous mysteries. Maybe saints have the vision to see all the hidden levels beneath, but I don’t. I guess it sometimes takes microscopes, telescopes, drugs, meditation, or the world’s most remote natural wonders to encounter these instances of infinity.
Somehow my wife shamanically moves much more seamlessly between the world of symbol and the world of reality than I do. She sees no distinction. Symbols are built out of reality. Reality is built out of symbols. Much like that famous M.C Escher sketch Print Gallery.
Susie’s magic can paste a triangle symbol on her arm and suddenly, there appear triangular mountains in all directions, themselves made up of triangles, themselves made up of triangles. The wrong question would be to ask if the magic of her triangles brought the reality of the mountains. Somehow, she’s coaxed a fractalized infinity of mountains in all directions.
For those to whom a stone reveals itself as sacred, its immediate reality is transmuted into supernatural reality. In other words, for those who have a religious experience, all nature is capable of revealing itself as a cosmic sacrality.
Early on in the planning for this “Explore the Edges” expedition, we established some ground rules for what our expedition would and would not be, both symbolically and in reality. One of the things we voiced was that it would NOT be a one-and-done trip. That’s called a vacation. That’s called checking off the boxes. That’s called tourism, prescription, set-in-stone-ism. That’s called living someone else’s plan. Through someone else’s symbol structure.
One of the things that we firmly committed to was that it would be a microcosm of our ideal universe. In other words, we hoped that at all scales– from planning and undertaking, to returning and living – it would embody the fundamental nutrients that give us joy. As above, so below. At the life level, down to the week, day, hour, tattoo level. It would be fractal and infinite. These fundamental nutrients include:
- Appreciating the natural world
- Moving through it with the full capacity of our bodies
- Making friends
- Being challenged
- Asking for/giving help from/to others
- High-fivin’ & booty slappin’
- Exposing our minds to new thoughts/ ways of doing things
- Shenanigans and rabble rousing
- Exploring our personal edges/limits/hang-ups
- Creating — poetry, writing, music, dancing, dinner, cocktails
These sunglasses are an infinitely recursive fractal model of the “Explore the Edges” expedition – a simple recipe that creates an infinity of possibilities.
Our distance from our normal world has allowed us some great introspection and conversations. At breakfast one morning at one of the refugios in Torres del Paine National Park, we were talking with a Portuguese guy and asked him, Dude, are you on a vision quest? His response was immediate and beautiful, No way! I already know what I want and I’m DOING it.
On a number of occasions on this trip, the conversation has turned to other important and existential questions like, Do you know who you are? Is there such a thing as your “authentic” self? Why do people hurt each other? What’s the point of anything? Do you see any signs of hope?
With the remainder of time we have on this expedition, what’s important might not be that we come up with answers, but that we have the courage to continue to ask these questions and explore them hospitably with the people we meet. This all feels like sacred space to consider the infinitely-sized questions.