Life and Teaching: Searching for the Mystic in the High Sierras

Andrea and William Halligan in the High Sierras.
Andrea and William Halligan in the High Sierras.

[dropcap]I[/dropcap] pulled our dirty gray Subaru into the Mosquito Flat parking lot at about 3:00 in the afternoon. We’d driven up from San Diego, and the plan was a quick backpack trip of just three or four days. Our packs were stashed in the back of the Subaru; mine held the tent and rain-fly, down quilt, Thermarest sleeping pad, stove, fuel, and a bear canister jammed tight with enough food for both of us for a few days.

There was also the book. Many people of my generation had read it years ago as it was part of the new age-y compendium back then. It snuggled cozily on 1960s and ’70s bookshelves alongside Thus Spake Zarathustra, Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, and The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test. Somehow I’d missed it, but I owned the boxed collection of all five volumes and they had been gathering dust untouched for some time. For this trip I brought the first two volumes along: Life and Teaching of the Masters of the Far East. The thin paperbacks tucked neatly into a side pouch of my pack.

Andrea and I had been following the High Sierra forecast all week and it was calling for thunderstorms and heavy rain this very afternoon and lasting through the night, but all the way up I-15 and California 395 the skies had been sunny and clear. From the road, Andrea and I both kept taking peeks at the ever taller granite peaks to the west.

Every time Andrea dipped her head low against the windshield and craned her neck to look up at the high peaks, she’d say, “Still looks good.”

She looked worried though and I could tell she wasn’t convinced we’d outsmart the weatherman.

Sure enough, when I swung off the highway at Tom’s Place and headed up the long, narrow blacktop road toward the trail head, the sky went towering black and lightning flashed over the taller peaks.

Right on cue, when I parked between a mud spattered white pick-up truck with Alaska plates and Mt. Whitney and Half Dome stickers on the rear window, and a Camry with climbing gear—helmets, coiled rope, carabineers, all manner of pitons, cams and stuff I couldn’t name strewn on the pavement behind it, the rain started coming down, pounding the windshield and the roof of the car with heavy drops the size of marbles.

Andrea and I just looked at each other. “Maybe it will stop,” she said.

“What do you think? Maybe give it half an hour?” she nodded.

A bright flash of lightning filled the sky and thunder rolled and echoed over us a few seconds later.

Two young men with faded blonde beards and hair that belonged in a grunge rock band came strolling down from the park bathrooms, gathered and packed all the gear, put on clear plastic rain slickers, looped the ropes over their heads and shoulders and headed out in the rain.

“What do you think?” Andrea watched the climbers, their backpacks dripping rain.

I pondered a few alternatives. We could put up the tent at the campground right here at the trailhead. We could take a short hike to Ruby Lake, a pretty spot on a trail that swung to the left just a short way up the switchbacks to Mono Pass and wait out the storm there. If we did that though we would be guaranteed a good soaking. While pondering our next move, near-by thunder continued to roll down from the hills to the west. In the end I cast a vote for an easy out. “I think Tom’s Place for dinner, and then see if there’s a cabin available at Rock Creek Lake. We’ll start in the morning.”

So, after dinner we hauled our packs into a rustic tin-roofed cabin and listened to the rain outside and the scratching and scrambling food scrounging of a mouse somewhere in the cabin’s kitchen.

I settled into bed with the first volume of Life and Teachings. The author, Baird Spalding, begins by saying he was part of a scientific expedition exploring India in the 1890s. While in a busy city—that he does not name—he comes upon a crowd watching a street magician. An elderly man standing beside Spalding tells him that such performers are common in India, but that there is a much deeper spiritual meaning for those curious enough, interested and open-mined enough to learn. And he invites him on a spiritual quest, if he and his team would be willing to explore the deeper manifestations of mind, body and spirit.

And so begins Spalding’s travels with the enlightened masters. Ten of his fellow scientists go along and, beginning in 1894, they record the marvels that they witness in the far-flung places from India to Tibet and beyond. I find it somewhat discomforting that Spalding says, in effect, “I’m not going to try to convince you that these stories are true, and make no effort to authenticate them.”

So, with the mouse quite noisily trying to locate snack-food (good luck, little friend, it’s in a bear canister, its lid a puzzle even for humans), I begin this provocative, entertaining, and yes, spiritually inspiring volume knowing that the author could have made the whole thing up.

The cabin is rough, but the roof doesn’t leak and the bed is comfortable enough. The sheets and blankets are too thin for warmth though, so Andrea pulls her sleeping bag out of her pack, and I my down quilt and we stay dry and warm.

I get deeper into the book. During travels with the masters, who never identify themselves with any particular religion although India is 80% Hindu, they do give spiritual, if not outright religious instruction to Spalding and his crew. They call Buddha the “sublime one,” but they also are entirely conversant with the teachings of Jesus; in fact they know the first few books of the New Testament as well as most Biblical scholars.

Early in the book, one of the masters instructs Baird to do a meditation each night just before drifting off to sleep. He instructs him to remember the child that still dwells within, and to experience the child, forever young and strong and healthy, forever innocent. “Practice acquiring the consciousness of childhood.” Of course I knew I’d heard similar instruction before, and I knew who spoke those words, but not being a Bible scholar myself, had to look it up.

Many of you doubtless know that it is from the book of Matthew. And He said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

One childhood memory flashed on me. When I was about nine years old we got our first TV. It was black and white, of course, and there were only two stations: the CBS affiliate in Madison, Wisconsin that had just set up shop and one other, broadcasting from Eau Claire. I had a few favorite shows but always tuned in to watch Gene Autry and his horse, Champion, race across the screen.

After a half hour of watching Gene and his fast horse, I’d feel so charged up that I’d dash outside barefoot and simply run. I’d run in the cool evening grass in summer, flying past the wheat fields and pastures. I’d run until I was breathless and sweating, run until I laughed with the simple joy of it; run, feet barely touching earth pretending that I was—no, not Gene Autry—but his galloping, charging horse, kicking up mad clouds of dust.

I drifted off to sleep with that memory in my head.

The morning dawned clear and we headed out of Mosquito Flats and turned off of the Little Lakes Valley trail and up toward Mono Pass. After the previous night’s meditation, I found myself wondering, what if some power had transported that nine-year old farm boy, who’d never even seen a picture of a mountain, far over a continent and dropped him here in the Sierra Nevada? I looked around with pretended farm-boy eyes and realized how astounded, amazed, awe-struck that kid would have been. Granite soaring thousands of feet above, a green valley with a clear and bubbling blue running stream feeding a number of Alpine lakes that shimmered in the sun of a bright July morning behind us. Mount Starr above and to our right, gleaming granite with smooth glacier carved edges, striations of color in the rock, the steep switch back trail with red Indian paint-brush and violet penstemons all blooming in tiny cracks in mountain rock, all amazed.


I reminded myself to always make the return trip to the adult mind (I’m not sure Jesus intended for people to stay in a child-mind permanently, but I could be wrong) but to feel the inner awareness of age nine, a kid who’d never been to high school and suffered through teen-age romances, a guy who’d never had the Ellis Island experience of dental school, a kid for whom running a dental office and treating patients and managing a staff was so foreign as to not even be a distant whisper, how terribly liberating that was.


The amazement never stopped. Is it a cliché to say I forget to be amazed too much of the time?

Near the top of the pass, above tree line now and onto the rock-strewn grayness of a moonscape terrain, I stirred with that old Gene Autry and his horse feeling again and told Andrea that I was going to pick it up a bit.

Close to the top of the pass is one of those disappointing false summits, and surmounting it you find you haven’t reached the top at all. Instead you see an ice swept bowl a hundred feet down and then the real top of the pass a few hundred yards—certainly less than a half mile—beyond.

I ran. I ran with my pack heavy and swinging awkwardly against my back, ran the dirt and rock of the trail that twisted and turned to the top of the pass, ran over the top then stopped at Summit Lake to wait for Andrea. I was nine, exuberant with images of Autry’s horse dancing in my head, nine, with the blood of age nine coursing strongly through my body. Nine.

It wasn’t just memories and childhood pretending that the masters in Spalding’s book had in mind though. They told him that meditating on these vivid childhood memories each night and not simply remembering but re-experiencing them so that they became real and internalized, would cause the dreamer to achieve more vitality, more youthful power in his daily life, to in fact become physically stronger with age. Some of masters even proclaimed the mediation would forestall aging itself.

Placebo effect, no doubt, but somehow I felt it. Why else would I be compelled to run, carrying all my gear, over a 12,000 foot Sierra pass? And feel invigorated and delighted at the top?

If I got nothing else from Spalding’s book but that, it was worth the price of admission.

We dropped far down into the fourth recess area then up another steep trail to a lonesome lake where we set up camp. Later, I would dig into Life and Teaching again. I’d read that a few of the masters could walk on water when it served them, such as when it beat waiting for a boat if they wanted to cross a big river, though I’d only heard of the One who could do that. Or they would heal the sick and injured with just a touch, and give at least some instruction, some clue as to how that was done.

All of that came later.

William Halligan
William Halligan

Although it was still July, as evening came on it got cold; the thermometer clipped to a zipper-pull on my pack read 30 F. I fired up the stove and Andrea made dinner, boiling water poured over freeze dried mac and cheese. We even had Creme Brulee for dessert. There was a half-moon, already high in the sky before it got dark. Then the stars came out and the milky Way’s bright wide band streamed pale and shimmering across the sky. The lake where were camped lay in a rocky bowl with towering granite peaks south and east. The moon light lit up their north facing walls.

Andrea and I both bundled up inside the tent and I read about the eastern masters with my head propped up on a Patagonia jacket and my head-lamp turned on for a reading light. Quantum teleportation—though they didn’t use that term—manifesting loaves (but no fishes), ending pain, instant healing. Crazy, intriguing stuff.

This leads me to think of people who come to my practice for care. Some suffer chronic pain; some have survived devastating injuries that, while mostly healed, still leave them with a level of permanent disability. I try to silence the inner skeptic, but I do wonder whether Spaulding’s stories could be true: are there actual masters who can heal the sick and injured? Did the books simply inspire the world to wishful thinking, or could there be a kernel of truth?

Spalding’s books became touch-stones in the new age of the 1970s even though they first appeared decades before, in 1924. Was the guy providing a narrative of wonders he’d seen and done over years of travel or was he just pulling the world’s collective leg? If he was just pulling our leg, he did it with style and conviction and kept it up through five volumes. I wasn’t sure where the truth stopped and the non-sense began. Even now, years after Spalding’s death, readers give the books 4-and-5 star reviews. They continue to sell well on

He did strike a chord.

I switched off my light and closed my eyes. The night was quiet and cold. I went to sleep with the vision of a nine year-old running barefoot over cool summer grass.

Next: part two of Life and Teaching.

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