IN THE COMPANY OF LIONS
a conversation with Gail Storey, by Claudia F. Savage
Sometimes books find us when we need them most. In the summer of 2014, when Gail Storey sent me her book, I Promise Not To Suffer: A Fool for Love Hikes the Pacific Crest Trail, I was desperate for a pleasant story. In the past year I had given birth to my daughter and lost both my mother and brother to severe illness. I longed for the backpacking wilderness of my twenties. That time in my life when I could find space to meditate and reflect in quiet, preferably surrounded by big trees.
Over ten years ago, Gail agreed to sell her house and possessions and hike the 2,663-mile Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada with her husband, Porter. He had just quit his job as the medical director of a hospice center in Texas. At 56, Gail was not a typical thru-hiker, and, yet, her decades of meditation practice and her willingness to jump into experience, even when it involved severe weight loss, possible drowning in rivers, and meeting mountain lions, made her an ideal adventurer. Through the miles she carried her meditation teachings inside her, eventually giving herself over to the journey.
Claudia F. Savage: In your book, I Promise Not to Suffer, you describe your journey hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Do you think engaging in a physical feat of this magnitude offers women something significant? Especially for a woman over 50?
Gail Storey: Definitely. Women share a deep affinity with nature, and this affinity blooms wildly while living in the wilderness. It gave more than my body and mind took away. I was taken over by the high desert of sand and sagebrush, the climb up frozen mountains to touch the cobalt sky, the roar of white rapids, the stark lava fields and deep green forests. I was 56 when I hiked the PCT, eager for initiation into the last third of my life. The physical and emotional demands of the trail initiate a woman into the wisdom of the deep feminine.
CFS: Your journey didn’t seem to be about physical prowess alone, even though it involved incredible physical feats.
GS: What happens on a hike of this magnitude is that even as the body grows stronger, its limitations force one to call on the emotional, psychological, and spiritual dimensions of the self. In a deconstruction of the layers of the self, I grew so raw emotionally that I had to face deeply buried roots of my psychological conditioning. Even my sense of self as a spiritual person changed. I gave up on being a person seeking enlightenment and relaxed into simply being an expression of what felt naturally present and aware. One example might be the line in the book, “What [awareness or presence] knew the world was here in me, pulsing in trees, water, rocks, mountain, moon.”
CFS: How did you come to be a Buddhist?
GS: My life was a succession of crises—sexual, financial, and emotional—from the time I graduated from college in the late sixties until I began Transcendental Meditation (TM) in the seventies. TM drew me toward the ground of being and helped me stabilize my chaotic life. I practiced TM twice a day for ten years until my friend Heidi said I was “a ripe plum ready to drop into the arms of Buddhism.” She gave me her sitting bench, and I began practicing Vipassana, including several ten-day retreats at the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts. Right before Porter and I got married I did a three-month intensive retreat at IMS. Three teachers—Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, and Sharon Salzberg—influenced me greatly. Joseph's dharma talks powerfully conveyed the profound depth of insight meditation to me. Jack, as a "householder" himself, taught me how to practice for the realities of everyday life and relationships. We meditators maintained total silence for the three months, except for a fifteen-minute interview with one of the teachers every few days. Most of my interviews were with Sharon, and she held the space for my six weeks of crying with womanly wisdom, warmth, and compassion. For the final two weeks of the retreat, she guided me into a loving-kindness practice, so that I could re-enter life outside the monastery with calmness and compassion for myself as well as all beings.
CFS: Did Buddhism serve you on the trail?
GS: I practiced Buddhist mindfulness while hiking the PCT until the practice fell away in the spaciousness of nature—our own nature as well as that of the wilderness. This spaciousness expanded without and deepened within, as “non-dual awareness.” Non-dual awareness isn’t a practice but a shift in being, from identification with the small conditioned self to knowing ourselves as Awareness. A global shift seems to be happening right now, with more and more beings opening into Aware Presence.
CFS: Many people come to meditation after a crisis, when they feel most vulnerable. They then discover that the act of meditation often increases feeling, similar to what you experienced on the trail with so much silence.
GS: You’re so right that meditation can increase feeling, and seventeen hours a day of mindfulness practice [at the three-month IMS retreat] brought my childhood of fear, anger, and grief to the surface. I cried nonstop for six of the twelve weeks of the retreat.
CFS: Your mother raised you Catholic. There is a memorable scene in your book when your father has been violent and a priest comes to comfort your mother. After he leaves she says, "What do priests know about marriage?" You were seven. Did this shape your idea about marriage? Religion?
GS: My sense was that the priest came not to comfort my mother, but to remind her of the “in sickness and in health” part of her marriage vows, so she wouldn’t separate from my father. Although my mother wasn’t religious at all, I was, and it set me on a collision course between Catholicism and sexuality, exacerbated by my father’s violence against my mother. On the other hand, my devotion as a child to God, the nuns, the Sacraments, and church rituals fostered a deep spirituality within. Although I left the Catholic Church at age eighteen, the sense of Presence resurfaced when I began Buddhist meditation in my early thirties. The truth of our being continues to deepen, whether called God, Buddha-Nature, or non-dual Awareness, which feels most natural to me now.
CFS: Reading your book, I was reminded of the Buddhist principle of non-attachment. This principle takes many forms but is based on the overall idea that suffering is caused by unending craving or the constant desire we have to attach to physical (or emotional) things. No matter how much we cling, we are never satisfied. You sold your house in Houston, which you and your husband, Porter, had worked to restore for years, along with most of your possessions, in order to fund this trip along the PCT. A developer bought it and razed it to the ground. This feels especially important to the beginning of your quest—a removal of all obstacles. You knew that you wouldn't have a secure home to return to after you'd completed the hike.
GS: I’m still shocked at how naturally I let go of our house, my car, and most of our furnishings and possessions. I have a homebody personality and thrive on domestic order. It felt freeing to let go of material things, a kind of voluntary simplicity. The Buddhist practice of non-attachment served us in an organic way to respond to what we felt as a call to hike the PCT. I discovered that my home is in my love for Porter and that by finding true home in the wilderness, I’m at home in the world.
CFS: Porter also made your hiking gear, and your only shelter along the trail was a thin tarp that you staked to the ground and lashed to trees. You didn’t even have a tent! This felt like a further metaphor of openness, not being able to hide from life. Was this just about saving weight or something more?
GS: It was partly about saving weight, in that we were older than most thru-hikers and had to hike ultra-light to cover the twenty-plus miles a day over mountains. As I detail in I Promise Not to Suffer, my base weight, except for food and water, was only eleven pounds, and Porter’s twelve. We hardly ever put up our seven-ounce tarp unless it was raining, hailing, or snowing because we loved the openness of sleeping under the stars. Our paring down to the barest essentials signified a willingness to be open and vulnerable to the fierce beauty of the natural world.
CFS: While reading your book, I was reminded of the female quest in Western literature, particularly the Sumerian tale of Inanna. Inanna's female servant, Ninshubur, supports her during her trials, specifically her descent into the Underworld. Ninshubur holds both the hope that Inanna will return from the Underworld and the sorrow that Inanna may be lost or changed forever. You acted as Ninshubur for both your husband and mother by going with Porter when he walked into the unknown of the PCT, and, then, finding out about your mother's illness once you've made the decision to go. This feeling of being pulled by two intense needs rang especially true for me as my own mother was dying while I cared for a newborn several states away; I could not be with either of them in the way I desired. How did you make the choice you did once you spoke with your mother?
GS: Before Porter and I left to hike the PCT, I went to visit my mother in Boston. That scene in the book holds such power for me because right after I told my mother about the upcoming hike, she told me about her breast cancer. My mother acted as my Ninshubur by saying she’d rather I hike the PCT than be with her. It was an extraordinary act of generosity on her part, and for each of us full of hope and sorrow.
CFS: You were a self-described “wild young woman” of the late 1960s, which caused friction between you and your mother. It eventually ended in a kind of truce, but not necessarily warmth. Did hiking the PCT give you a chance to practice dukkha—the elimination of suffering—for both your mother and yourself?
GS: I’m fascinated by the realization that even with pain, we don’t have to suffer. Suffering always has a story attached, the story of me. Hiking the trail was an adventure in letting go of all kinds of stories that I’d held for too long, including the one of my distant relationship with my mother. I was not who I thought I was, and neither was she who I thought. [At that time] we were together in much deeper relationship than I’d ever experienced. Although we’d had difficulty up until then saying that we loved each other, we found ourselves held by love itself. The softness and the silence that surrounded her dying was love expressing itself through us. I feel much closer to my mother now than I did when she was alive, because of the timeless, spacious presence of that love.
CFS: After three months on the trail you welcomed the experience of "just bearing witness to your mother" in the last stages of her life. You said, "I could be with her in her silence… I loved mystery itself." What was it about the trail that enabled this moment? Was it your mutual suffering or something deeper?
GS: Just before Porter and I headed into the High Sierra, the most challenging four hundred miles of the trail, he gave me the chance to turn back because I was losing so much weight and cried often, much as I had on the three-month Buddhist retreat. “I hate to see you suffer,” he said, and I said, “I promise not to suffer.” It was then that some attachment to the suffering “me” let go, and that’s where the title of the book comes from. I Promise Not to Suffer seems to me not just a hiking memoir but a spiritual autobiography, in that it’s about the unraveling of the self until it dissolves into the mystery of being.
CFS: Your decisions at the end of the book implied a newfound wisdom that you were at home not just in the natural world, but also at home with life's uncertainty. It reminded me of Ikkyu, the Japanese Zen Buddhist priest and poet, who said, "Having no destination, I am never lost."
GS: Yes, and it reminds me of the turning point in both my hiking and spiritual adventure. Rounding a switchback alone, I came eye to eye with a mountain lion:
Suddenly she saw me. She raised her sculpted head, looked through me with her green-gold eyes.
We contemplated each other. Gaze, rest, gaze. Rest, listen, rest. Listen, wait, listen.
Gaze, listen, be.
Gail D. Storey
Gail's book, I Promise Not to Suffer: A Fool for Love Hikes the Pacific Crest Trail, won the National Outdoor Book Award, Forward IndieFab Book of the Year Award, Nautilus Silver Award, Colorado Book Award, and the Barbara Savage Award. I Promise Not to Suffer was praised by Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, as "Witty, wise, and full of heart... as inspiring as it is hilarious, as poignant as it is smart." Her second novel, God's Country Club, was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. She lives in Boulder, Colorado where she writes, hoop-dances, and jumps out of cakes, though not necessarily at the same time. She can be found at www.gailstorey.com.
Claudia F. Savage
Claudia has been a chef for people recovering from illness, a book editor, and a teacher of poetry, but her most challenging and joyous job is as mother to her two-year-old daughter, River Amira. Her poems and interviews have recently been in CutBank, Nimrod, The Denver Quarterly, Iron Horse Review, VoiceCatcher, The Buddhist Poetry Review, and Bookslut. As a poet, she's been awarded residencies at Ucross, Jentel, and the Atlantic Center for the Arts where she met her husband, an experimental jazz flutist and saxophonist. Their duo THrum records and performs throughout the Pacific Northwest. Musings and collaborations can be found at whileriversleeps.com and in her column about balancing parenting and making art, "Leave the Dishes," at voicecatcher.org.