Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

DAYS 67-81, Vallecitos Mountain Ranch, New Mexico, Part 1


December 4 – 18, 2012

Just before Thanksgiving while in Las Vegas, I learned that Vallecitos Mountain Ranch, a retreat center in northern New Mexico, was looking for a care taker to stay until December 20th. Another care taker would arrive then and reside until spring. ( The ranch closes for the winter and needs people on the property to keep an eye on things.

This sounded great. I had never been there but I knew it was a special place. This could be the perfect opportunity for the self-retreat I was seeking. I contacted them immediately but they had already filled the position. A few days later I discovered Denchen Ling and made plans to go there soon after Thanksgiving.

As I was finishing emails in Tonopah, just moments before entering the silence of Denchen Ling, an message arrived from Vallecitos, explaining that their care taker had to leave suddenly and asking us if we were still interested in care taking there. Yes! But I was just starting my week retreat in Arizona! They said they could wait and we made plans to go to Vallecitos as soon as I had finished my self-retreat.

At nearly 9000 feet, we would be moving from the summer-like weather of Phoenix to real winter. We were informed that while there currently was little snow at the ranch, they often have two feet by early December and must travel by snowmobile. More snow could come at any time. The ranch is down a dirt road off a winding highway through the Tusas Mountains and is surrounded by Carson National Forest. Although nervous about getting snow bound, we were open to adventure and looked forward to the remoteness and to settling down in one spot for over two weeks.

We drove the 600 miles in two days, sadly passing by unseen National Parks and Monuments. The last seven miles on dirt road were slow with patches of snow and ice. There was a note welcoming us and wood in the stove ready to light when we arrived.

Our accommodations, the Homestead Cabin, was one of the original buildings when this land was a cattle ranch in the early 20th century. It had been partially modernized with hot and cold running water, a hot shower (!), gas fridge, cook stove and lighting, and a wood stove for heat. The toilet was a 50’ walk up a slope to an outhouse. The cabin consisted of one large room, each corner serving a different function: kitchen, dining room, bedroom and living room. In the center of the back wall, stood the heart of the space, a red enamel Vermont Casting wood stove. There was a second small room that housed a shower, sink and dressers for storage. The walls were original hand-hewn logs.

It was furnished with old and second hand furniture, painted lively “Taos” colors: purple, dark teal, red. The floor was covered in ancient and cracking linoleum, reminiscent of the kitchen floors of my childhood, which is probably when it was laid. Windows had been added that brought in welcomed light and significant solar gain during the day.

An old black and white photograph taken when it was a cattle ranch showed a woman in a long printed cotton dress and apron standing outside the Homestead Cabin next to a large bell. It looked like a meditation bell but, of course, it was for calling ranch hands to meals. I suggested to Chris that we pretend to be homesteaders while we were there . . . except without all the work of homesteading!

The following morning, Chris and I walked the land, exploring the many buildings and facilities. There was a lovely log lodge that had a meditation hall, a professional kitchen, dining room and a loft with library and comfortable couches. Numerous casitas dotted the aspen groves as well as small yurts and canvas tents. In another building near us, called Middle House, was solar-powered wifi for internet and a satellite phone for emergency use. These were the only form of outside communication.

By noon the foreman of the ranch, Carl, had arrived to answer our questions and show us, literally and figuratively, the lay of the land. Along to help him was Jack who had been winter caretaker twice before, living there alone six months, three of them snowbound. He added comments about his experience and useful suggestions.
Carl would keep an eye on the forecasts for snow and would take measures to get us out safely if need be.

We settled in and relaxed. Days were short. It was that time of year – we were closing in on the Winter Solstice. But daylight was even briefer in this valley. A hill to the southeast delayed the sun’s appearance each morning and a hill to the southwest hastened its departure. Nights early on were about 20 degrees and daytimes were mostly sunny and reached into the 50’s. I noticed the elevation, becoming breathless easily.

We had brought lots of food, but Carl would resupply us if necessary. He was our closest and only neighbor, five miles down the dirt road on his ranch. Since the only real grocery store was 60 miles away in Taos, it was unlikely we would ask for additional food.

It was quiet. Beautiful, pervading, soothing silence. However, we were warned that every so often our quiet would be dispelled by fly-overs of air force planes. Low flying radar-evading aircraft travel from Albuquerque to Colorado Springs, practicing maneuvers here because of its similarity to the mountain ranges of Afghanistan. On our second morning as I explored the land, a loud roar erupted and I sighted fighter jets skirting the tops of the mountains behind the cabin.

There are foot trails heading in every direction and I hoped to explore them all before we left, but weather could limit where we go. Across from our cabin the Icarus Trail began. I thought that was an odd name for a wilderness trail until I learned that it led to an actual statue of Icarus. A previous owner of the ranch had it commissioned and placed there. The trail wound between two ponds, through a ravine to the top of a large rock outcropping that was visible from our deck. When I reached the summit, I saw that the sculpture was actually a relief built into one wall of a stone structure, a small hut-like building. It showed Icarus, his limp winged body held in his mother’s arms. Near his head was an opening representing the sun. On the summer solstice the relief is aligned with the setting sun which radiates through this portal, bringing the mystery of the sun and of Icarus’s story alive.

From this outcropping there was an expansive view of Vallecitos Mountain Ranch and the surrounding landscape. The ranch, a conglomeration of scattered buildings, sits in a valley with grassy meadows and several ponds, mostly frozen over. It is encompassed by hills and mountains, by rocky cliffs and ponderosa forests. The Lodge and casitas were hidden from view behind a large aspen grove. Beyond them ran the Vallecitos River. The tops of farther ridges receded into the distance.

For much of the first five days we were not alone. Carl and Jack, with Chris’s help, prepared and tidied-up for a short retreat coming that weekend and continued to close-down the ranch for winter. For the last event of the year, a teacher was bringing a small group of students from a college in Santa Fe for meditation and respite in the midst of exams.

The retreat cook invited Chris and I to join them for meals. Saturday night, we sat in the lodge’s big kitchen for some excellent home-cooked vegetarian cuisine. We were offered leftover food from the retreat and happily consumed it for the rest of our stay. I discover that the cook and the teacher leading the retreat were students of Khandro Rinpoche, one of the few women rinpoches ( a high-ranking reincarnate lama), and they told me about her center, Lotus Garden, in Virginia.

Everyone was gone by Sunday afternoon; we had thousands of acres to ourselves. The only other non-wild residents were two horses, Wrangler and Prince, who we had yet to see. The aloneness brought both a sense of relief and vulnerability. We were far from anywhere and in a true emergency, help would take time to arrive. But this feeling of being so far from the maelstrom of human activity, created a sense of timelessness and opened a perspective beyond petty concerns. We sought to find a rhythm to our days and allow the silence, the solitude and the wild beauty to enrich our hearts. There would be little to do and certainly nowhere to go.

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DAYS 59-65 Dechen Ling, The Retreat – Part 3

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November 23 – December 3, 2012
Tonopah, AZ

One late afternoon I meandered through the desert, my camera in hand. I was ready for the daily spectacle of the setting sun. Following some tractor tracks through an opening between small trees, I walked into a vast field of . . . cotton! I had heard agricultural equipment, so I knew there were planted fields nearby but seeing ripe, ready-to-harvest cotton surprised me. The leaves of the cotton plants were withered brown, red and green. The hard-shelled pods, called bolls, were in various stages of erupting into fluffy white balls. Only a few of the mottled green, black and purplish bolls were still shut tight.

The cotton bolls usually had four, sometimes five sections, each with a wad of white down, the size of, well, a cotton ball, like the ones we use at home. There were numerous seeds imbedded inside, refusing to easily separate themselves from the fibers. The cotton gin was invented to remove these and, you might remember from history class, revolutionized the cotton industry.

The field of snowball-like cotton glowed against the desert mountains and the multi-colored sky. There were quail and cottontail rabbits (their tails looking more like cotton than ever before) running about the outskirts of the fields. A coyote trotted along one edge and then ducked silently into the tangled bushes of cotton. I picked one boll that had fallen to the ground to bring back and inspect in detail.

One of my outdoor meditating spots on the ground looked out across the creosote shrubs and debris of the desert floor. A few feet in front of me sat a pile of scat. I ignored it for awhile. Then, when I looked closer, what I thought was domestic dog poop, turned out to be from a coyote.

I had recently read that some tantric practitioners put human excrement on their altars, to represent the sacredness and non-differentiation of all things. I get the point, but poop on altars isn’t my cup of tea so I chose to gently sweep it out of view. The next morning when I sat there again, a feet or so from the original spot of the scat was a new fresh moist pile of coyote poop. I let this one be. (No, I didn’t take a photo of it.)

During the retreat I read parts of Natural Great Perfection by Noshyul Khen which I had brought along on the trip. In the cabin I found and read a copy of Longchenpa’s, You Are the Eyes of the World. Longchenpa was a 14th Century teacher and transmitter of Dzogchen (an advanced teaching of the Nyingma lineage) in Tibet. He, like many of the famous teachers of Tibet, spent part of his life as a vagabond, wandering from place to place, often practicing in mountains and caves. So I like to think of my wandering sabbatical as inspired by that tradition. It is said they traveled “without agenda or itinerary”. The only thing I am missing is their “realization as vast as space”. But I am working on it and I do have a vast sky to practice with.

On the walls of the cabin were two tangkas (also spelled thangkas or tanka). Tangkas are traditional Tibetan Buddhist paintings that are used as teaching and meditation tools. They may represent an historic or imagery being, show mandalas or represent a Buddhist teaching. Every detail in the image has significance and specific meaning.

The one depicting a four-armed Chenrezig was familiar to me. The other one was new; it showed a deep blue-black Buddha in union with a white, unadorned consort. Chenrezig is a Tibetan version of the Buddha’s disciple Avalokitesvara and is associated with love and compassion. The four arms represent the four Brahma Viharas or qualities of the awakened heart: lovingkindness, compassion, joy and equanimity.

With some research I found the other tangka depicted Samantabhadra Buddha, his blue-black color representing emptiness. The consort, Samantabhadri is completely white, except for her flowing black hair, and is naked with no ornamentation. (Some figures in Tibetan tangkas are decked out in all kinds of jewels, robes and finery.) She represents clarity of mind, free of all thought constructs. Together they illustrate the union of emptiness and awareness, one of the basic Dzogchen teachings about the nature of mind. The third and last aspect of natural mind is “unlimited Buddha activity”, meaning the free flow of unconditional love and compassion. Here Chenrezig fulfills that function. I don’t think it was by accident that these images were there.

The only downside to this retreat spot is the encroachment of Phoenix as it continues to expand and the noise from the nearby freeway, I-15. The traffic on the freeway was continuous but the loudness of it varied tremendously during the day. At night or in the early morning, the sound increased to a loud close rumble that was a constant companion and intruded into awareness most of the time. During the day, the sound receded, becoming more of a hum, sounding farther away than it was, and was often unnoticed or barely audible. This phenomena was so pronounced, I had to look it up and find out exactly what caused it. I found the simple explanation is that when air is cold, the molecules are closer together and conduct sound more efficiently.

My last night there, I soaked with Camilla and Bill, the owners of Dechen Ling. I wanted to meet Camilla since she was the Tibetan Buddhist practitioner and had outfitted the retreat cabin.

She was a Dzogchen student of Lama Surya Das with whom I had also studied for many years. It was Surya who named the place, Dechen Ling, meaning retreat cabin in Tibetan. She also knew Lama John Makransky and Lama Willa Miller. We shared updates and information about people we knew in common as well as suggestions for other teachers and retreats.  We had very likely been on meditation retreats together but had never actually met before.

What was truly surprising was discovering that we had lived in western Massachusetts during the same period. She had worked at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst where I had gotten my undergraduate and graduate degrees. Even more amazing is we had both lived in the tiny town of Conway, although not at exactly the same time. I am sure we passed each other as strangers in many different places over many years.

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DAYS 59-65 Dechen Ling, The Retreat – Part 2

November 23 – December 3, 2012
Tonopah, AZ


“Round and round you go . . . where you stop  . . . nobody knows . . . “

I sometimes half-jokingly say that future historians will call this century, “The Golden Age of the Labyrinth”. All styles of labyrinths are appearing everywhere, at least in the U.S., at churches of every denomination, retreat centers, schools, parks, homes. If humans suddenly disappeared and alien archeologists landed, they might believe that labyrinths are the core of our spiritual life.

Although labyrinths are visually appealing and an attractive addition to any garden or large indoor space, I have felt rather neutral about their use in spiritual practice. Having done many hours of walking meditation – maybe weeks if all totaled – ambulating to deepen spiritual insight is very familiar to me. Walking meditation can be practiced indoors or out, in a back and forth path, around in circles or in a straight line, fast or slow. You can do it anywhere. Its purpose is to collect the heart and mind in the present, to disengage awareness from the mental chatter and connect with a deeper way of knowing and of being. Labyrinths have seemed superfluous to that purpose.

Of course, a labyrinth is an ancient form of sacred circle, mandala, and medicine wheel. They hold a special energy. They are symbols of the divine feminine. So, despite my indifference, I figure, you can’t really have too many of them.

I thought I might warm up to labyrinths if I used one repeatedly. I didn’t want to miss out on what they might have to offer. Here, at Dechen Ling, was my opportunity.

The path of the labyrinth at Dechen Ling is defined by small stones. The design weaves the trail in and out, getting you closer and then farther away from the elusive center, until you finally reach the end of your journey at the heart of the spiral. This is a lovely symbol for the way our spiritual path usually unfolds. We seemingly get closer to our deepest aspirations, to our true nature, and then we lose track, get diverted, distracted and appear to be going in the wrong direction. We forget where we are or become overwhelmed. The labyrinth shows you that, ultimately, every step you take with intention, leads you, eventually, to the completion of your journey.

As I walked this labyrinth for the first time in warm mid-day sun, I thought of other places that offered structured walking practice. For example, when I had a massive vegetable garden in Massachusetts, first thing in the morning and when I returned from work, I would saunter up and down the rows, just to witness the life growing there and to see “what was new”. Fresh sprouts, leaves, buds, new flowers or fruits, ripenings or rottings, vegetables stolen or damaged by the local critters who wanted some of the bounty. It was really an exercise in being present, in connecting, in leaving behind the detritus of a burdened mind.

So like the garden, a labyrinth is a device, an excuse, an attraction, that invites meditative walking, makes it easy to begin and end, and to do repeatedly. We humans are a forgetful bunch and are easily dissuaded from doing what we know to be most important and true. Anything that reminds us to pause and wake up amidst the bustle and distractions of ordinary life is of enormous help.

Each day I slowly paced the inward course of the labyrinth. At the center, the place of completion, I performed the 11-directions ceremony, a ritual based on practices from around the world. Best known are the medicine wheel rituals of Native Americans. This labyrinth was laid out on an east-west axis, making it easy to align with the compass points. I offered a pinch of tobacco (a substance sacred to Native Americans across the continent) to each direction in a gesture of gratitude after I had given thanks to the benefactors of the quality represented by each direction. I asked for guidance and protection. And I clearly set my intentions and dedicated myself to be “a voice for the earth and all life”.  You learn that spiritual qualities dwell both within oneself and in the natural landscape. The 11-directions ceremony, like the labyrinth itself, offers a structure to return us to what is essential.

After doing this for several days, I appreciated the metaphors imbedded in the labyrinth’s form. It reminds us that we are on a meaningful journey. Many people’s lives are adrift, without purpose, and they miss the potentiality inherent in being human. They miss the opportunity to walk a path of transformation, a path not about transforming into someone better or different, but in transforming into someone who knows who you really are, able to see past the superficiality of ordinary views and delve into deeper truths. The journey of the labyrinth symbolically takes you to the innermost center, the source, the still point.

Sometimes the words labyrinth and maze are used interchangeably. However, this type of labyrinth is the opposite of a maze. Mazes are meant to confuse and they foster getting lost.  Walking a labyrinth, you are guided, step by step, to where you need to go. The choice is not about which way to go but whether to surrender to a process that is greater than oneself, to follow the mystery to its end. There is an inevitability built into a labyrinth.

Traditionally, the labyrinth is described as a journey of shedding worldly concerns on the inward course to the sacred center, and then returning outward to the world again, renewed. This was not exactly my experience. The inward track felt like a focusing, an intensifying of intention. The center, a complete stopping, the moment of simple Beingness. The walking outward was the shedding of all separation and becoming more inclusive until nothing is left out.
The Labyrinth

DAYS 59-65 Dechen Ling, The Retreat – Part 1


November 26 – December 3, 2012
Tonopah, AZ

While in Las Vegas I started eagerly planning a self-retreat. Maybe that’s what being in the big city, particularly Las Vegas, does to you. Maybe it was seeing Ajahn Brahm. Maybe after six weeks of travel I needed to completely stop and be silent for a while. I wanted to simplifying my life even further and I was overdue for a retreat. Practicing presence and letting go is a balm for the ills of human life.

Like a psychic compost pile, the accumulated leftover debris of the strains and demands of the last several years needed to be stirred up, turned over and exposed. My inner world craved room to ventilate and to be mixed with fresh perspectives, allowing the tensions, worries, and neuroses to decompose naturally into the fertile humus of human experience. Some parts of me still felt stale and dense, thick with the residue of stress. One purpose of this sabbatical is to restore and stabilize deep levels of ease, open-heartedness and clarity. The most efficient method for this profound reconnection is silent meditation retreats. A retreat now might help kick-start my sluggish inner process toward transformation and deepen my future sabbatical experience.

Looking online for retreat cabins in Arizona or New Mexico, I found possibilities but nothing that was suitable. Then during our first night in Arizona, I casually flipped through our brand new copy of Hot Spring and Hot Pools of the Southwest. I didn’t want to miss any good hot springs here like we had in Nevada. One entry jumped out at me, a springs called “Dechen Ling”. I immediately recognize the name as Tibetan. Reading on I discovered it is a retreat cabin west of Phoenix with its own outdoor hot springs tub. Ah, this is the place for me!

I arranged to spend a week there after Thanksgiving.

From Sedona we chose the longer more scenic route to the tiny town of Tonopah, where Dechen Ling is located. The drive was both more beautiful and slower than we expected. Our 2-dimensional map belied the great changes in elevation and the serpentine course we would encounter. Indeed, it was an exceptionally 3-dimensional experience.

After passing through Cottonwood the road quickly began climbing the mountain range as if it were aiming for the peak rather than the pass. Switchbacks and hairpin turns kept Chris busy at the steering wheel. The old mining town of Jerome appeared, precariously perched on the steep slopes of Woodchute Mountain. The buildings dangled over the edge on stilts and the road’s shoulders fell away into a great void below. Coming from California, where earthquakes and landslides are common, this town looked vulnerable to a host of catastrophes.

As we zig-zagged through town, we passed cafes and restaurants, art galleries and gift shops terracing up the mountainside. Tourists sat sipping coffee and enjoying the unparalleled views. We had a destination to reach before dark so we didn’t stop even though we would have liked to explore this unusual village.

The 150 mile drive felt more like a thousand miles, partly because we traversed so many different landscapes. From red rock country, across Verde Valley then over the mountains above Jerome, descending into a long valley, climbing again to the forests and hills of Prescott and eventually entering the Sonoran desert with its stately Saguaro cactus standing at attention, welcoming us.

We arrived in Tonapah at about dusk and met with one of the owners. We checked out the facility to make sure it fit the bill and were satisfied. He invited us to join him in a long hot soak in the large elephant-foot bath tubs. The owners are naturists and feel strongly that you shouldn’t disrespect the natural spring waters by wearing clothing. There is a public hot springs next door which they bought, developed and operated but sold a few years ago. Chris and I had been there is 2001 when on our previous sabbatical.

We spent the night parked a few miles away on BLM land. I planned to start the retreat the following morning. Chris had the week to explore the area on his own. Although we had been getting along well, having some time apart after total togetherness seemed like a good idea.

The retreat cabin sat at the back end of the property and abutted the open desert. Between the cabin and the street were a labyrinth, a hot tub area, the owner’s home and a small rental house. The cabin was pleasant, small and clean. The far wall was set up as an altar with tangkas, buddhas and related meditation equipment. A fold-up futon sat to one side. The opposite end had a kitchenette and toilet area. In another building was a shower as well as washer and dryer.

This is the Sonoran desert. It is a flat plain scattered with saguaro cactus, low shrubs and occasional small trees; distant mountains can be seen in several directions. The sky was a colossal blue bowl arching overhead down to the encircling horizon.

My first evening I was treated to a spectacular sunset, in pinks and purples, stretching across the entire dome of the sky. I walked into the desert and twirled in circles to take it all in. The full moon rose, gradually lighting up the desert. During my second night, I took a midnight hot soak under the glow of the moon and the shimmering of stars.

The weather was truly pleasant, neither too cold nor too hot.

I spent my days going back and forth between the cabin and the private hot springs area and made occasional forays into the desert. Each morning I started outdoors, practicing qi gong and meditation with the rising sun. Any night-time chill in the air was quickly vanquished by the rays of light. Before lunch I practice yoga on the outdoor rug adjacent to the hot springs tub. Both indoor and outdoor sitting meditations were sprinkled into my schedule throughout the day. I also read, wrote, ate, soaked, wandered.

Mornings also included an 11-direction ceremony. This ceremony combines setting intentions, offering gratitude, opening to a world of natural benefactors and consciously connecting with the surrounding environment. It can be done quickly or expansively, spending thoughtful time with each direction. I first learned this ritual many years ago when working with John Milton and Sacred Passage. It was an important part of my month-long solos in the wilderness.

Birds flittered in the tops of the low trees. Small lizards scurried on the ground, stopping suddenly to do a few push-ups, as if daring some predator to catch them, and then ran for cover. Gambel Quails, sleeker cousins of the California Quail, rushed to and fro, squawking, chirping and making their 3-part “Chi-ca-go” call.

I watched the birds above as I soaked in the outdoor tub. Most of them I could not easily identify as they were nondescript grays and browns. There were a few woodpeckers dressed in black and white with red on their heads. This describes many woodpecker species so I was not sure which ones they were. I did identify a Gila Woodpecker. Phoenix is the northern end of their range. Mourning doves periodically mourned. I saw what looked like a phoebe – but not quite – then identified it as a Black Phoebe rather than the Eastern Phoebe I am familiar with.

One mid-day after yoga, I must have been doing a convincing corpse pose because a large hawk appeared flying low, circling above me over and over again. I guessed that the big bird spotted me with its keen eyes and came by to check me out. Although this was not a vulture who specializes in dead meat, it may have been interested in an easy morsel.

I love being a hermit for awhile.

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