On February 1st, 2015, I paused in my years of service with Ananda Sangha Worldwide to begin a year-long sabbatical. In many ways, it was the best and happiest year of my life. I had the time to do many of the things I always wanted to do, but had never found the time to stop long enough to do them.
Although I love to take times of silence and seclusion, the sabbatical was a very different prospect. One of my primary goals was to do my best to have longer, deeper meditations — thankfully that did happen. Another was to write my second novel, which I did. Another was to spend three months (13 weeks actually) camped out on a nearby river, which I also did.
There is much to say about the new-to-me concept of taking a sabbatical, but for now, I want to focus on some of the adventures I had being almost completely alone for the whole summer, while camped out on the Middle Fork of the Yuba River. Needless to say, I learned many things from my experiences, and I’d like to share these insights with you also.
Many thanks to my employers and co-workers in the Sangha Office for being so accommodating and kind to me when I explained what I wanted to do, which I’m sure seemed unusual, to say the least.
I’d also like to thank my dear husband Sudarshan who supported me in countless ways and cheered me on to the finish line. Finally, and most of all, I offer my gratitude to God and Gurus for guiding me so lovingly.
Getting There and Staying There
The short version of my river-camping adventure is this: In late May I set up my camp in the way I wanted it. My husband and I have camped in this same location many times before so it was not too hard, because I pretty much knew what I wanted and needed to make myself reasonably comfortable and safe.
“I soon learned that camping out for a couple of weeks of vacation with my husband, and camping out alone for three months are two very different experiences.”
Every time we took our vacations there in past summers, as we were packing up to leave this beautiful vacation spot, I’d always say, “Sudarshan, I don’t want to leave! Someday, I want to come back down here and spend the whole summer!”
Years went by and I began to realize that if I were going to fulfill this dream, I’d better hop to it while I still had the health, strength, and motivation to actually be able to do it.
Sudarshan helped transport me and all my gear to the area, helped me get set up, and stayed the first four nights with me. Then he went home. From that point onward until he joined me for the last two week I was there, I was a senior-woman, alone in the wilderness. And I stayed that way for almost every day for the next three months!
Was I happy, peaceful, and inspired, or afraid, scared, and freaked out? Yes, all of those things and more. I soon learned that camping out for a couple of weeks of vacation with my husband, and camping out alone for three months are two very different experiences!
Was I ever bored or lonely? Absolutely not — just the opposite! Did meditation come more easily during those months? Thankfully, yes!
My “headquarters” was a tiny, 7-by-15-foot wooden shack, located on a large, remote section of private property. It was precariously constructed about 25 years ago on a wooded bluff, about 100 yards from the river. It has two doors, two windows, an outhouse, a picnic table, and no electricity or water. It’s cozy but primitive and very isolated, located at the bottom of a scarily steep jeep track, off a gravel road, which is off another rural road. Interestingly enough, as the crow flies, this place is only about a mile or two from our home at Ananda Village. But it is a 30 – 40 minute drive by car. I had a nifty ice chest that Sudarshan designed for me (and he also designed a way to make long-lasting ice blocks in our freezer at home and transport them to me as needed), a propane cook stove, a few shelves, a table for food prep, and a comfortable single futon on a wooden platform. All I wanted or needed!
I had told my friends I was staying in a cabin, but Sudarshan told me I’d better tell the strict truth and call it what it really is — a little primitive shack.
If you know Ananda Village, the river I camped beside is the one you see way down below you, when you enjoy the beautiful canyon and river views seen from Crystal Hermitage. Look to your left (downstream) and you can almost, but not quite see where I was. The owners of this land have been friends of ours for many years. Sudarshan and other Ananda builders help to build their nice vacation home on a different part their property (not the little shack where I stayed, which was already there when they purchased the land).
Since 1998, we have spent almost every one of our two-week summer vacations camping out there. The shack has not been inhabited for many years by anyone except the resident mice, but each summer we’d clean it up just enough to set up our rustic kitchen and store our clothes. We slept in a screen tent on a flat shady, sandy spot, closer to the river, that we call Twin Cedars Beach. The whole area is lovely, restful, and quiet. We also frequently drove or hiked down to this isolated spot, for day-trips, picnics, and swimming.
I am very grateful to the owners of this private land for giving me permission to stay on their property all summer.
In Love with the River
The main attraction is THE RIVER. The middle fork of the Yuba River is the smallest of the three Yubas (the North, Middle, and South Yuba Rivers), and in my opinion the prettiest. It runs through steep, wooded canyons, which are very rugged and remote enough to discourage most people from building or living close to it or even hiking along it.
Much gold was taken out of these river canyons in the 1800’s, and a few people still pan and dredge for gold along its channel or in small mining claims.
The river is cool, sparkling, and crystal clear in the summer, filled with large, smooth sun-warmed boulders, both in and beside it — perfect for lying on for a sunbath or for relaxing in the shade and feeling the river flow all around you. Fairly deep swimming holes with very clear turquoise/ green water are punctuated by sections of small rapids and waterfalls.
I’m a lifetime water-lover, and it feels like paradise to me to be there, both beside and in the water. I spend a lot of time swimming, snorkeling, and “salamander-ing” along the shallower parts of the river. Often I will sit under one of the small rapids, which I call my personal “Jacuzzi” and let the strong river current give me a free massage by pounding on my head, neck, shoulders, back, etc. Or I get on my handy flotation raft and float along wherever the slow currents want to carry me.
There is a small, sandy beach there, shaded by willows and alder trees. I set up a nice altar on east side of this beach and spend many of the daylight hours there (when I’m not actually in the river) either meditating, doing yoga postures, or writing, reading, and relaxing.
Across the river on the shady side, Sudarshan helped me hang my comfortable Yucatan hammock from a couple of sturdy trees, right next to the river. I went there almost every afternoon at about 1 or 2pm, read, take afternoon naps, or just enjoy “being” and rocking in the gentle breezes.
Blissful! O how I love that river! And I so much enjoy meditating or falling asleep hearing all its amazing sounds.
Listen to an audio clip of the Yuba River:
The area is full of wildlife of all kinds, something which, especially in the case of the bears, takes a little getting used to. I have lived in rural areas for most of my life, so I am generally not afraid. I love animals and try very hard to have a live-and-let live relationship with them. On the whole, I enjoyed sharing my summer with them.
The river is home to the gentle California red newt, which is one of the cutest little creatures you can imagine. With big, bright, shiny green eyes, they crawl slowly around on the bottom of the river, which is so clear you can easily watch their activities. You can pick them up and pet them too — they don’t seem to mind.
There are fish, mostly trout and squaw fish. They don’t grow large, so the fishermen don’t come around very much, for which I am grateful. I follow them around, and they follow me around, when I’m snorkeling. The bottom of the river is so interesting — full of all sorts of creatures like caddis fly larva and crawdads. Water striders skate around on the surface of the river where the water is still, and I learned that they like to nip your ankles, if you don’t watch out. I didn’t see any this summer, but on several occasions I have been delighted to see whole families of river otters, playing among the boulders by “my” beach.
Flying above the river are scores of colorful dragon flies, red, blue, tan, black and yellow striped — always a treat to watch their airy-acrobatics and they catch a lot of mosquitos too. They like to land on me when I’m floating on my raft, and I love it! Their eyes are many-faceted and amazing to look at. Butterflies abound also, in many beautiful colors.
Bird life includes beautiful merganser ducks and other kinds of ducks, eagles, great blue herons, ospreys, turkey buzzards, kingfishers, woodpeckers, water ouzels (who will dive and “swim” underwater chasing the small fish!), plus a number of other small birds that I have not identified, but who love to sit in the willow trees at twilight and chirp to each other, and bats who come out just after sunset and also help with mosquito patrol.
These photos by other photographers capture some of the animals I saw during my seclusion.
The lizards are the greatest, and I always make friends with a certain few of them who hang out by my altar and whom I name for their different personalities traits, examples being Bruno, Brutus, Lizzie, Alizardo, Tail-less, and Taylor, to mention a few. The tiniest ones are less skittish and will sometime crawl up on your finger or body, if you are very still. The funny praying mantis will sit happily on your fingers too.
The only poisonous snake species inhabiting this part of California is the rattlesnake, and though there are many of them living higher in the mountains around here, they don’t seem to live near the river, or at least I have never seen one there. Lots of other snakes are around especially in late May and early June, both land and water snakes. I saw some really beautiful ones this year! I am not afraid of them — I just try not to bother them, and certainly they don’t bother me.
Mice, as I have mentioned, live in and around the shack in droves. I won’t kill them, so just about every night I’d set some small “have-a-heart” traps in the shack, baited with delicious peanut butter. The next morning, I’d transport the prisoners (they are VERY cute!) in their little cages across the river on the raft and let them go there, assuming that they can’t or won’t swim back home.
I’ve learned to keep all food tightly locked up in ice chests or various sorts of mouse-proof containers, and that works well. As the summer went on, there seemed to be fewer and fewer mice venturing into my traps, so I believe they got the message that they were welcome to be anywhere, except inside my shack, under pain of forced deportation. There is an UNLIMITED supply of mice in those woods, plus the old shack is full of entry holes. The best I can do is talk to them, remove them, and/or and ask them to keep their activities down to a minimum. It seems to work!
With the ants, I asked them not to bother me or my food and that worked pretty well, too. If they got out of line I sprayed them with a weak solution of white vinegar. In fact I learned to spray shelves and cooking surfaces daily with this solution which repelled, but (as far as I could tell) didn’t hurt the insect life.
Dealing with the mosquitos, of which there were a lot, can be a challenge. But they never bothered me except during the twilight hours, so I learned move into my shack or tent during those hours and all was well.
Skunks were around, leaving their small “calling cards” of odor-spray, just to let me know they were there. I saw them rarely, and of course I left them strictly alone. The only real encounter with a skunk was when a friend brought her small dog along with her, when she came to visit me. Even then, it wasn’t a big spray event — just a little warning shot, so to speak. We washed the unhappy doggie’s face, neck and chest with canned tomatoes and all was well, though he was a little fragrant for several days afterwards.
Deer came down to the river at times for a drink. Grey squirrels scampered through the trees. Several gray fox were heard making weird sounds, especially on full moon nights. I think they were mating. But I never saw them. I found a dead young possum one day, and said a prayer for it — not of sure the cause of its death. I never saw evidence of raccoons, which is amazing, because they certainly are around our home at the Village.
The Bears and I
I knew they were around. I’ve seen the black bears several times at Ananda Village and also near our campsite on previous visits. Interestingly enough, black bears are often not black. I’ve seen cinnamon, tan, and golden-colored ones also. They can get very big — certainly bigger than me. Always, when I’ve seen them, as soon as they saw me, they turned and ran away.
This is what happened to me about ten summers ago on the same river-beach I have described above: I was meditating there in the very early morning. Sudarshan was meditating in the tent not too far from me, but I was I was basically alone. It was July and the height of the ripe and delicious blackberry season, of which there is generally a great abundance along the wet banks of the river channels. I enjoy eating them too! Anyway, I had finished meditating and was sitting with my back against my favorite boulder, enjoying the rising sun, the river, the birds, etc. I was also playing and singing the chant “O God Beautiful” (I have a little portable keyboard which I take along to accompany myself). After I finished the chant, I heard a noise off to my left in the blackberry thicket — just a few feet away.
I didn’t take this photo! I would have been too scared. But it’s not that different from the bear I saw. Photo by Dave Toussaint.
What to my surprise there was a big black bear, happily munching blackberries and paying no attention to me or my chanting! I watched him for a while, wondering what I should do. He seemed to be grazing slowly in my direction, so I figured I’d better leave so he wouldn’t step on me — I understand that they hear and smell better than they see. The minute I stood up, he did too, on his hind legs. Wow, they do look tall, when they do that! Then he fell over backwards, turned, and raced up the dry part of the river bed, to get away from me, no doubt. After that I became a little wary about meditating alone outside in the early mornings or late evenings — which is when the bears seem to be out and about, doing their things.
This “alone” summer I was a little worried, but prayed that all would be well with me and my bear neighbors — and that’s how it turned out, but not without a few scares. The first was only a couple of evenings after Sudarshan had left me on my own. I was energizing at the beach and heard a sound, which I began to recognize as the summer went on. It was a bear scrambling along the rocky river beds, turning over largish rocks to look for grubs, lizards, or whatever. I didn’t see him this time, but he left his calling (a large scat) letting me know he was around.
A week or so later, I was meditating in the shack early in the morning with the doors open. I heard a loud rustling sound out on the nearby path. This time I saw the bear. It turned out that he was a she, but I only learned that later when I saw her with her cub. This time she was alone (perhaps she was pregnant — she looked huge!)
She was the prettiest golden color, with two dark brown rings around her eyes, making her look a bit like a panda. We locked eyes for a moment — I realized I was probably seeing her better than she was seeing me, but I could tell she sensed I was there. So I jumped up and grabbed a couple of cooking pots to bang together, as one is told to do in situations like this. It worked like a charm, and she took off up the hill. By now I was getting a little freaked out and consulted with Sudarshan by phone later that day, about what he thought I should do. My cell phone actually did work down there in the river canyon — a small miracle in itself.
Another thing which was happening was that there were starting to be dusty bear-paw prints all over my dark green Subaru parked up the hill a ways, like they really wanted to get into the car. The car had no food in it, but my “hole-y” shack certainly did — it must have smelled like a deliciously stocked grocery store, to all nearby bears! We came up with the plan of placing smelly moth-cubes all around the car and placing an ammonia-soaked towel on a stick, which I hung off the car’s roof rack. That worked to keep the car bear-free all summer long!
View from the Crystal Hermitage. The Middle Yuba River where I stayed is off to the left in the valley.
For the first month I was there, I slept inside the little shack on the small bed. It was very comfortable because the nights were still quite cool, and I had sturdy wooden bolts on both doors. I hoped the bears wouldn’t try to get in. I prayed about this a lot and tried to talk to the spirit of all the bears too. It worked and I never had a bear bother me in the shack whether I was there or not. But at first, I slept fitfully, as you can imagine, thinking that every little sound was a bear trying to get in. Sudarshan considerately brought me a large, noisy air-horn which made the most terrible loud roar — as a defense mechanism.
By the end of June, it was getting hotter, even at night and I decided it was time for me to pitch a small tent down at Twin Cedars Beach where it was much cooler to sleep. This put only a thin layer of nylon screen between me and the bears or whatever was out there, but it had to happen. I kept nothing around me which might smell like food or attract the bears.
People are made of stories, not atoms.
I love to get up very early, and one morning in the first dim light of dawn, as I was just crawling out of my tent, I heard a “bear-like noise” upstream. There I saw a tiny bear cub — very young and cute, dancing and playing around on a fallen log. A big Uh-Oh for me, for I knew Momma Bear must be nearby, and I had heard often that mother bears were dangerous, especially if they felt any threat to their cubs. Sure enough, I soon saw her looking at me from the other side of the fallen long. It was the same big golden bear with the brown eye-circles that I had seen before near my shack.
I silently communicated with her, right from my heart, saying that I truly meant neither her nor her cub any harm, but that felt I must scare them away now. Then I pumped out a few loud blasts on my air horn, and off they scampered, up the steep hillside in a big hurry. Whew! For the rest of the summer, I was as careful as I could be. I carried a big walking stick and my air horn wherever I went and often chanted loudly, too.
As the summer went on, I still heard the bears from time to time, doing their “turning-over-the-rocks” thing or rustling about in the blackberry thickets. And I saw their scat here and there, but I never had another close encounter with the resident bears, for which I am very grateful.
Sri Yukteswar says that one good way to approach one’s fears is to “…look fear in the face and it will cease to trouble you.” I didn’t want to be foolish and endanger the body I inhabit now, but on the other hand, I very much wanted to complete my summer stay by the river, because it was a unique and wonderful experience for me. I was determined to enjoy every minute of it. So with God and Guru’s divine help and protection, everything came out all right. And I think I gained a lot about courage from my bear encounters.
Self-Reliance and What I Learned
It was interesting for me to realize how dependent upon Sudarshan I had become, after 35 years of marriage — mostly for things like fixing anything broken, lifting heavy objects, or driving me on bad roads to pretty places — roads which would have scared me to drive alone — and in general or just being my best friend, excellent company, and a great conversationalist. I always felt confident that he could keep me safe from just about anything. But now, I was alone and on my own.
Yes, I could have called him to come to my rescue, if truly needed, but I wanted to do everything I could to avoid doing that. After all, he was working hard at his job to be sure we both had enough income to be comfortable and not fall behind financially, during my sabbatical. We had made an arrangement that I would call or text him every day at 1pm just to let him know I was OK. That worked out well.
Otherwise, I had some wire, push pins, rope, duct tape, a hammer, some nails, and a few other tools — allowing me to keep things together on the most basic level. I found out it was good for me to figure out how do take care of these small projects all by myself!
I also had to become confident in driving our little Subaru up and down the jeep road to the shack site. I think it would scare just about anybody to drive that road. It is very narrow, sometimes slippery, rough, deeply rutted, with almost vertical drop-offs down the sheer sides of the canyon. I did a lot of chanting, praying, and AUM-ing, and I kept my trips in and out to a minimum. But I grew in confidence as the summer went on until by the end of my time there, I began to feel like a real rough-tough, 4-wheel drive, back-road mama!
I believe that everyone should try something really unusual, fun, and possibly even radical, during his or her lifetime — something which is very different from normal, daily life. Break away and just do it! You’ll learn a lot about yourself. I thought of Thoreau and his time of solitude by Walden Pond.
I thought even more often about Stella Patterson who wrote the book Dear Mad’m. If you have not read it, please do! I cannot recommend it highly enough. She was a retired school teacher, and at the age of 80, she forsook her quiet retirement and moved into a small, rustic cabin on an isolated mining claim on the Klamath River. That part of Northern California in the 1940’s was still very wild, remote, and far removed from civilization. Her fabulous book inspired me greatly to do what I did. Thank you, Stella!
I learned ONCE AGAIN that God and Gurus are always watching out for me in such a powerful and yet kind and loving way (you’d think I’d know that by now!). I had to conquer my fears about many things, and I prayed a lot more than usual; but that is a good thing for anybody to do! It drew me closer to God, and that was what I wanted most of all, from my time by the river.
Writing My Second Novel
I had written a few chapters of it before my arrival at my river camp, but it was my intention to spend at least part of every day while staying at the river, writing the rest of it and hopefully finishing it! Sudarshan had rigged up a way for me to plug my laptop into a car battery which sat under my picnic table. I set myself up at the picnic table and wrote for 2 or 3 hours, just about every morning. It was a great place to write. No interruptions, beautiful scenery, and river sounds — I felt very inspired, and I hope that inspiration comes through in the novel. I completed a first draft of the book in mid-August.
While Sudarshan was with me in late August, he read it all and made many corrections and valuable suggestions. He actually said he likes it, thank God! And he is a pretty tough critic. I had hoped to have it published by Christmas, but alas, that did not happen — it still needing editing, proofing, cover work — that sort of thing. I hope it won’t take too much longer to get it published and distributed.
It is a sequel to my first novel Through Many Lives: A Tale of Time Travel Through the Yugas, published in 2011. This new one is entitled: Through the Chakras: A Tale of Adventure in the Seven Golden Pyramids. It is difficult to describe how much fun I had writing this book! It is full of deep teachings from our spiritual path, while still being a rousing adventure story. I think readers will enjoy it. I’ll continue to keep everyone posted about how it’s going.
Here’s a little bit from the novel’s introduction: “When I finished the first novel, many people asked me if I planned to write a sequel. And I will admit that another plot began forming itself in my mind for a second novel, but I swore that I would never try to write another novel unless I had a large chunk of time and space, in order to do it justice and save me from mountains of frustration. Because I was working full-time (and more), the first novel was written piecemeal, late at night, on weekends, or on short vacations or retreats, I’d write for a while, with great enthusiasm, then I’d have to drop it for days, weeks, or even months at a time.
“That is a very difficult way to write anything, but most especially a novel! I’d often forget what I was trying to say or why or even what was happening in the plot, and have to spend a lot of time trying to pick up the threads cohesively. It was a small miracle it was finished at all.
“But then the sabbatical came along, offering me an incomparable opportunity to write without interruption — what a luxury! I realized that: a) I really was inspired to write another novel, and b) I just might have enough time, this time, plus the right environment and sufficient energy to try to write it more as a continuous flow of inspiration. And that is what happened.”
Friends often asked me, “What did you do every day? Did you have a schedule you kept to?” Yes, I am a person who likes to get a good routine going and stick to it. So I was up every morning between 5 and 6. After a few quick morning ablutions, I energized, chanted, and then meditated — usually for about 3 hours. At about 9, I fixed a small breakfast of fresh fruit, kefir, nuts, and a one-egg omelet. A little clean-up around the shack and by 10am, I was working on the novel at my picnic table. At 12:30 or so, I went down to the river and took a bath, swam, snorkeled, or Jacuzzi-ed in the rapids. I sat by the river and relaxed, made sure I contacted Sudarshan by 1pm to let him know I was OK. At about 1:30pm I crossed the river on my inflatable raft, and got into my comfortable hammock to do some light reading.
I often said to myself, “I don’t really feel tired. I’ll just relax my eyes for a few minutes.” But the gentle rocking of the hammock in the soft breezes, the sounds of the river, the great peace all around me — I was quickly lulled to sleep. I rarely slept for very long, but always awoke in that paradise feeling joyful and nurtured by the nature devas. Back to the shack by about 4pm, I fixed my main meal of the day. I ate well — mostly lots of fresh veggies.
After my meal, I went back to the beach to enjoy the twilight hours. Sometimes I’d spend that time reading or writing in my notebook — mostly jotting down ideas about what I wanted to write in the novel the next day. Or I’d swim or rest on a boulder in the river. By the time it was getting close to dark, I’d energize, perhaps do some yoga or other stretching exercises, then I’d get into my tent for my evening meditation and to avoid the worst of “mosquito time.”
I have a little wooden recorder (flute) that I’d play an evening chant or song. By full dark, which was 9pm or later, it was time for falling asleep to the sounds of the river and the frog-and-cricket chorus.
Some days when the inspiration for writing was flowing strongly, I wrote for longer periods of time. Some days when my brain felt tired, I didn’t work on the novel at all. Instead, I did my “art projects,” which I really enjoy doing, while listening to Swamiji talk or sing to me on my i-pod. So unless I had guests coming down to visit me or unless I needed to make a trip out for supplies or laundry, this was my everyday routine. It was great! I loved it!
Many friends wanted to visit me at this beautiful spot, and I tried to say yes as often as I possibly could, within reason, because I loved to share the beauty and peace of the river. It was fun to watch their faces relax and begin to shine with the river vibrations. But as the summer went on, word was getting out about what a beautiful place I was camping out in, and more and more people wanted to visit me. Work on the novel was suffering, so towards the middle of July, I started saying no (regretfully) to just about everybody. There are some neighbors who live nearby who occasionally use this same part of the river as their “cooling off” spot, usually on the weekends. I got used to their rhythms and they got used to mine, so it all worked out well. I became accustomed to being alone for most of the time, and I can see the great power of hermit-hood much more clearly now.
Was it hard for me to return home after 13 weeks? Yes, it was. But it was time for me to go home, and I had mentally prepared myself. As I said, Sudarshan joined me for his vacation time, the last two weeks I was there, so that got me used to talking and interacting with the human race more than I had been doing. Thank God I didn’t have to return to work immediately — my sabbatical has continued for some more months. Would I do it again? Absolutely. Will I do it again? Doubtful. My life just isn’t set up to do what I want, whenever I want it. Yours probably isn’t either, but if you ever get the chance to do something like I what did, I’d say DEFINITELY to go for it.