The Great Basin’s Lehman Caves

I’m certainly not a spelunker. In fact, judging from past experiences in large caves, I probably have a mild case of claustrophobia. At the very least, such places often make me feel uncomfortable, wondering why I ever subjected myself to the experience. So, I was a little apprehensive when we first heard about Great Basin’s Lehman caves and even more undecided when we had to decide if we wanted the thirty minute tour or the ninety minute tour. As it turned out the well-lit caves didn’t affect me the way most caves had in the past; I was glad we decided on the ninety minute tour.

I also questioned whether it was worth taking a camera with me, but the caves were well-lit so I was able to get several shots that capture the feel of the caves; it probably helped that I had an expensive camera and shot HDR. The hardest part was trying to find something to actually focus on, particularly since they used spotlights to light up areas of the cave.

It was hard not to capture fantastical shapes wherever you pointed your camera.


Somehow these stalagmites and stalactite reminded me of old, deteriorated Asian ruins.


I liked the way different levels of the cave were illuminated. Often, lights at lower level seemed quite practical, helping to light the way through the caves. Overhead lights seemed less practical, but definitely added to the atmosphere of the caves.


This shot was taken looking back at a large “room” that our group had just walked through.

Lehman4 Try as I might, I couldn’t eliminate the washed out area without plunging the rest of the photo into total darkness. Although we kept to a single walkway, it was obvious that spelunkers could explore other areas of the caves not commonly visited, Lehman5

though I was perfectly content to stay on the beaten path. Our guide showed us places where the original spelunkers were forced to crawl far too far to reach the next section of the cave, often with nothing more than candles. Needless to say, I wouldn’t have been one of those crawling through the darkness with a candle.

Only those who take the 90 minute tour get to see this huge formation a the end of the tour.


I’m not sure I would call it beautiful, but it was certainly awe-some, like some alien life-form.

Great Basin National Park

Leslie and I took our first long trip in our Toyota Tacoma camper last week, a trip full of some nice and some not-so-nice surprises. I’d been told a couple of years ago that Great Basin National Park in Nevada had some spectacular Bristlecone Pines and had wanted to go there ever since. Leslie read that they held a moonlight walk once a month and that appealed to her. So we decided to start our round trip at Great Basin.

I knew it would be a long drive through mostly high desert country, and it was. After nearly a thousand miles of driving I was more than ready to stop at the Pony Express Trail Memorial along US Highway 93 north of Ely.


Of course, I’d long ago read about the Pony Express, but actually crossing the same ground they had to ride across gave me a deeper appreciation of their accomplishment.

Unfortunately, the closer we got to Great Basin National Park the worse the weather got. If I’d had any sense, and a better weather forecast, I would have taken a lot more pictures on the way up the mountain, because the weather kept getting worse and worse as the day wore on.

Our campsite, though, was quite beautiful. The birch trees had already started changing color at 10, 000 feet and even the meadows seemed a golden-green.


Unfortunately, as the hour for the moon walk grew near, the skies were an ominous grey-black. We figured the walk would be canceled since there was little chance of seeing the moon, and we were right. The ranger told us that it was the highest percentage of rain they had ever gotten in the park.


As it turned out, I was very glad that we hadn’t started out on the trail. Within an hour we were surrounded by lightning and pounded by the hardest rain I can ever remember experiencing. Of course, the aluminum roof on our pickup probably amplified the sounds of the rain. It turned out the storm was the result of their customary monsoons and the Hurricane that hit LA and Phoenix the day before. I think they nearly matched their annual rainfall in two hours.

I must admit that for the half hour or so I enjoyed seeing the sky light up and immediately hearing the thunder shake the pickup. By the end, of the storm, though I was more than ready to go to sleep, but the storm kept me awake. It wouldn’t have been so disappointing if it had only rained that night, but the skies looked equally ominous the next morning when we drove down the mountain to visit the Lehman caves.


Despite having driven nearly a 1,000 miles to see the Bristlecone Pines and the moon, I didn’t want to spend another day of our limited vacation sitting around waiting for the rain to clear. I figured if the trees had managed to last 4 to 5 thousand years, they would still be there when I got back the next time.

Luckily, the trip wasn’t a total loss as the Lehman caves, which I’d never heard of before, turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip.

Sky Above, Great Wind: The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan

Recently I had to drive to Portland to get a special rear bumper put on my Toyota pickup. I figured that I would get a poetry book to read since I was told that I would have to wait at least three hours to have the old bumper taken off and the new one installed. Considering how many partially read poetry books I have laying around my den, I decided I would buy the Kindle version of Kazuaki Tanahashi’s Sky Above, Great Wind: The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan.

It turned out installing the bumper took nearly 6 hours, not three, so I managed to finish the book in one sitting. It was hard to ignore the irony in waiting to have a $4, 000 bumper installed while reader Ryokan’s poetry extolling the virtues of the simple life. It is indeed a strange world when camping out in a small pickup with a small camper can be considered “living the simple life.” After a lifetime of backpacking, I’m amazed at how spacious my camper seems. But every time I pull into a KOA campground and hook up to water and electricity next to a huge motor home I’m reminded that everything is relative.

Despite owning far too many things, including poetry books, I still identify with the spirit of Ryokan’s Zen poetry. This is the second book of his poetry I’ve purchased, but it has been so long between works that I really can’t compare them, though I’m sure that Tanahashi’s collection contained several new insights and a larger selection of Ryokan’s poems.

In the introduction Tanahashi contrasts Ryokan with the two other great figures in Zen Buddhism in Japan:

Unlike Dogen and Hakuin, Ryokan did not engage in the training of monks in monasteries. Instead, he practiced alone in extreme austerity without producing any dharma heir. He dropped out of society as well as the Zen community and could therefore be seen as a failure as a Zen teacher. Having no possessions may not have been the most effective way to attain freedom. It was nevertheless Ryokan’s way of life. Creative thinking and mystical encounters often unfold in silent solitude. The more intricately engaged in society we are, the more we may need to be in retreat. Humility is the highest means to selflessness, clarity, and compassion. Through his utterly modest and unaffected life, Ryokan unfolds a vast realm of serenity that can inspire us all.

Poems like

I don’t regard my life
as insufficient.
Inside the brushwood gate
there is a moon;
there are flowers.

while advocating the simple life seem to suggest that Ryokan also knew that many people saw his way of life as a failure.

Part of Ryokan’s appeal to me is precisely that he left his practicing community and practiced the dharma alone:

I don’t tell the murky world
to turn pure.
I purify myself
and check my reflection
in the water of the valley brook.

Withdrawing from the practicing community, he walked alone through mountains and villages, ringing a belled staff and chanting a verse of a sutra at each house. He treated everyone with respect and loving-kindness. Whether people offered him food, ignored him, or harshly drove him away, he was determined to remain true to his path as a monk.

Never a great follower, I’ve discovered many of my own truths while hiking or camping in Washington and Oregon’s wilderness, far away from the classroom and the books that I’ve devoted much of my life to.

Tanahashi’s commentary is often as concise as the poems themselves, but it adds another dimension to Ryokan’s poems.

One of Ryokan’s death poems summarizes his lifelong loneliness, openness, and reconciliation with transiency:

Showing its back
and showing its front,
a falling maple leaf.

Though I’m not quite sure how the poem conveys “his lifelong loneliness, Tanahashi’s comment made me think more longer about the poem than I otherwise might have.

Many of Ryokan’s poems don’t need any commentary at all.

See and realize
that this world
is not permanent.
Neither late nor early flowers
will remain.

My recent travels have clearly shown that Fall is nearly upon us. I’ll be out enjoying our recent sunshine because Fall and Winter rains can’t be far behind.

Feels Like Home

Thankfully, September has finally arrived. August has been a challenging month for me. We’ve had considerable work done on the house, and even though I didn’t do much of the work myself I’ve had to be here while house-painters, window-installers and yard-workers have done their work. In other words, I haven’t been able to hit the road like I’d hoped, though I have managed to get out at least weekly, walking Theler Wetlands in Belfair most of the month.That should end shortly.

Summer birding around here isn’t nearly as exciting as Fall, Spring, or even Winter birding, but I do enjoy Theler every time I’m there and would probably make it a daily walk if it wasn’t a 45 minute drive away. I enjoy the four mile plus walk along the creek, through the woods, and next to the Sound whether alone or walking with a group of fellow birders.

Summer is the greenest month of all,


and there’s no place better to revel in the greenness of it all than in the mixed forests at the beginning and the end of the walk where small trees and shrubs crowd the feet of cedars and firs.

I generally see the same birds visit after visit, though occasionally there’s a surprise passer-by. Luckily, I never tire of hearing the warning cry of Killdeer as I walk by,


never tire of the golden flash of American Goldfinch,


never tire of walking through a flock of diving swallows, whether Tree Swallows, Cliff Swallows, or Barn Swallows like this waiting to feed its young until I pass.


It may not be exciting, but it feels comfortable, like home. I’m always thankful Theler Wetlands doesn’t belong to an individual owner and hope fellow visitors feel, like I do, that they belong here.

No News is Good News

I think that if I were forced to sit in front of the television or my computer screen every day for the whole year I would slit my wrists — the news of our world seems that bad, and, if the news doesn’t convince me that it’s that bad, the organizations I give to regularly would certainly convince me through their emails requesting funds/signatures.

Luckily, in the summer I manage to get outside most of the time, and there’s always something to see that convinces me the world’s a beautiful place if we manage to take care of it. More often than not, I find that beauty in one of the few places that retain their native beauty, but occasionally I also retreat to man-made places that gather beauty from all over the world in one place.

A favorite of these is the Pt. Defiance Dahlia Garden, especially this time of year when dahlias are in their prime. Dahlias must be one of the most diverse family of flowers, both in shape and color.

Some, like this beauty, manage to combine several different elements into a harmonious whole.


while others offer startling contrasts, like this red, white, and yellow flower.


It’s hard to believe this one is even related to the first two, startling with brilliant summer colors.


while this one takes on a peaceful lotus-like shape.


Hard to find a better way to escape the news of the day than a quiet morning walking through a dahlia garden.

This Economy is Giving Me the Blues

I think I’ve done a remarkably good job of limiting my political views to my Facebook account recently, but, since I’m already off on that vein, I thought I’d share these two things that happened to appear at almost the same moment.

I’d just received a notice that Playing for Change had released a new album, and since I support their initiative I went to iTunes and purchased their new album. After listening to the Keb’ Mo’ cut, I went back to iTunes and ended up purchasing his “Bluesamericana” album. This cut

was a favorite, perhaps because it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting from a blues album, though, in retrospect, I probably should have expected it.

As I was listening to the song I was also browsing Facebook where I found this Bernie Sanders quote


posted by long-time blogger friend Jeff Ward.

Together they go a long ways toward expressing my frustration with an economy that seems determined to undermine the middle class and pervert our democracy into an oligarchy, if it hasn’t already occurred.

Who Needs Social Security?

One of the most surprising results of my serving in Vietnam was that I became a caseworker shortly after I returned home rather than accepting a banking offer or seeking out other businesses opportunities. Though I had no specific training in casework, I scored very high on the state test and with added points for being a veteran I was quickly offered a job in Aberdeen, Washington, one I readily accepted.

Like most caseworkers, I began working in Old Age Assistance and (I think) General Assistance. Although I had seen the grinding poverty in southern parts of the United States and, even more dramatically, in The Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand while in the Army, naïvely, I hadn’t expected to find such poverty so close to home. America manages to hide its poor much better than the rest of the world, particularly in rural areas.

Most of the people I worked with, at least those in Old Age Assistance, had worked hard their whole lives but were unfortunate enough to live too long, to live until resources were dwarfed by inflation or until a mate had died and they no longer drew two pensions. Most of these people drew very little Social Security because there had been no Social Security when they had started working. What pensions they drew were usually “company pensions,” which provided a fixed income. As a result, many were trying to live on 40’s wages in the late 60’s. With an inflation rate often approaching 18%, they would have starved without government aid unless neighbors were willing to feed them and pay utility bills.

Almost invariably they were blue-collar workers or wives of blue-collar workers. Because it was Aberdeen, Washington, many of them were retired loggers, workers who had earned good wages when they were working, though logging is both seasonal and cyclical. Although many of my clients owned their own homes, they did not have savings (If they had savings, they weren’t eligible for OAA).

In fact, if you were going to blame my clients for being on “welfare,” you’d have to blame them for not having saved enough during their working years. All those years they didn’t have Social Security deducted automatically from their salary they should have been putting 10% (their 5% and their employer’s 5%) of their income into savings so that they could retire comfortably. Not sure how they would have done that during the winter or other periods when they were unemployed, but it’s tough to see that retirement is more important than a meal out once a month, or more important than a vacation every 5 years. Do you put money in retirement or help your kid go through a JC or 4-year college?

I suppose you could have blamed them because they were only blue-collar workers; they should have studied harder and gone to college. Heck, many of them hadn’t even finished high school, dropping out at 16 to get a real job to help pay the bills. Times have changed, and a college education wasn’t required to make a good living in those days. I’m not sure how much money today’s college graduates will be able to sock away for retirement when they’ll be required to pay off thousands of dollars in student loans for years after they graduate.

Social Security has finally eliminated Old Age Assistance. Because so many people don’t think about old age until it’s too late, the government requires automatic saving from the wage earner throughout his/her earning years and requires his/her employer to contribute an equal amount to his retirement. Social Security not only helps the wage earner in the long run, it also saves taxpayers money by not requiring them to support those people who can no longer work but who haven’t saved enough money to live on their retirement income and savings. The money most people received from Old Age Assistance was considerably less than the amount they now receive from Social Security. Unlike assistance, they (and their employers) have earned Social Security, at least they have if the government hasn’t frittered away the money they put into the system. Equally important, they don’t have to feel demeaned because they are “on welfare” and aren’t “charity cases.”

No one is going to live well on Social Security alone, but they’re not going to starve, either, and, more importantly, for those who are only concerned with how much they pay in taxes, taxpayers are not on the hook for them, either. Although Americans seem willing to put up with the elderly having to wait on them at fast-food joints during the day and having them greet them at the door in Wal-Mart, I doubt most Americans are willing to see large numbers of seniors forced to sleep in doorways or beg on the street as I saw in a number of third-world countries.

Unfortunately, in our current economy more and more old people may have to rely on Social Security for their sole source of income. Fewer American companies offer traditional retirement programs (which, considering their recent track record, is not necessarily a bad thing), which means a lot more Americans will be responsible for providing their own retirement plan. If the past is any indication, and it’s the only one we have, more Americans will reach retirement age without the kind of investments needed to provide for themselves. It certainly doesn’t take long to search the internet and confirm that we are approaching a retirement crisis (not surprisingly, the conservative Newmax seems to be the lone dissenter on this issue. Wonder what their position is on Social Security?#!)

Even though the company my wife works for will match 401 donations up to a certain percentage, she notes that far too many of the workers aren’t doubling their money by putting it into retirement.

I also saw some very troubling signs when I worked as a tax preparer for H&R Block after I retired from teaching. Whenever there was a recession people were cashing in their 401K’s, even though they ended up paying a 10% penalty for doing so. Some of the time it seemed they could’ve tightened their belts and gotten by on unemployment benefits instead of cashing in their retirement, but often it was difficult to disagree with their strategy when they were in danger of losing their house or were simply unable to pay their current obligations without using their savings.

Considering how much worse the latest recession has been, particularly for older workers, it seems likely that an even greater percentage of workers must have withdrawn funds from their 401K funds in recent years. I find it amazing/appalling with so many indications that people are having a harder and harder time saving for retirement that there are so many calls from Republicans and their supporters to cut back, privatize, or totally cut Social Security.

Even for those who have considerable wealth, Social Security serves as a safety net in a worst-case scenario. Why, then, is the Republican Party so set on limiting or eliminating Social Security, especially when a large majority of the public actually opposes their actions? The only motivation that really makes sense to me is that businesses want to eliminate their 7.5% share of Social Security. As a tax preparer it was not uncommon to run into companies that were unlawfully treating employees as Self-Employed workers to avoid paying those costs to the government (the Self-Employed worker was required to pay both his usual amount and what would have been his employer’s share of Social Security). I imagine profits would take a considerable jump if Social Security could somehow be eliminated, and what company wouldn’t welcome a 7% increase in profits?

Personally, I thought this battle had been won nearly a hundred years ago when it was passed by the Roosevelt administration. It allowed workers who could no longer physically compete with younger workers to retire at reduced wages while providing younger workers with jobs at a time when job opportunities were scarce. People don’t seem to age as rapidly now as they did in the 30’s, but the ones least capable of working past 65, physical laborers, are the ones who are most apt to need Social Security, and the ones whose low wages have made it hardest to set aside money for retirement. Of course, they wield the least political power and, thus, are the ones least apt to have their needs met.

I taught high school for 30 years and was finally exhausted by the challenge and was beginning to have as hard a time identifying with the sons and daughters of students I had taught when I began teaching as they were of identifying with my values. The stress of the job was beginning to affect my health, but I could have continued to teach for several more years if necessary. Luckily, my house was mostly paid for, I’d saved some money, my pension was enough that I could survive on it until I could draw social security, and I was able to work part time as a tax preparer to earn money so that I could do more than just survive. If I had to survive on Social Security alone, I would have continued working because I want more from life than mere survival. After contributing to Social Security for 40 years, I was always counting on it as a part of my retirement. I don’t know many middle class people who aren’t counting on it so that they can do more than merely survive in their senior years.

Thank God for a mandatory retirement saving plan. I doubt I would have had the foresight to start saving for retirement when I started teaching when there never seemed quite enough money to meet the needs of two growing children. It’s hard for anyone who’s 25 to really imagine that they are ever going to retire, even though it seems just like yesterday when I look back at those times.