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Climbing Parnassus- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Climbing Parnassus- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Climbing Parnassus

From Two Weeks Ago


Nancy and Bruce are contemplating a backpacking trip to follow on the success and delight of last year’s 26 mile, four-day ramble along the “Lost Coast” of California, a wild and beautiful stretch of coastline so rugged that it was impossible to put Highway 1 along it, about 200 miles north of San Francisco.

This next hike is about the same distance and duration, but instead of being at an elevation of 10 feet, next to the ocean, it will be at 10,000 feet in the High Sierra of granite cirques and cerulean lakes, following the John Muir and Pacific Crest Trails northwesterly from Mammoth, California to Tuolomne Meadows, inside Yosemite National Park. 


Garnet Lake

Garnet Lake


When we walked that coastal stretch last year, we met perhaps two dozen people. They were almost all a generation younger than we are, with recent memories of college life. 

They were impressed that we were out there instead of, well, instead of what?  Sitting on a rocking chair on a veranda with a cat and knitting, sipping tea? In a nursing home? Doddering full-time? 




It was almost as if what we were doing was what we call “trans-legal.” This has nothing to do with gender issues, rather it is our term for activities so in the minority that it is as if they were illegal. 

There is often no reason to not do something trans-legal except that it is just not done. Identifying those situations opens an entire adjacent possible, rooms with ‘Keep Out’ signs that you put there yourself because you felt you should. The very definition of self-limiting behavior.

But even if one is fully physically capable of undertaking a certain project, the fact that nobody else of similar demographics is doing it gives one pause. Second-guessing starts happening.


Bruce & Nancy on Sierra Backpacking Expedition

Bruce & Nancy on Sierra Backpacking Expedition


What if there’s a medical emergency? What if the equipment doesn’t work properly? Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! Or at least chipmunks, marmots, ants, bluejays, and mosquitoes. 

Robert Heinlein once said in Time Enough for Love:


It’s amazing how much mature wisdom resembles being too tired.

-Robert Heinlein


And it is true, energy declines with age.

We can’t and won’t try to hike the distances Bruce hiked when he was 19, 20-mile days from sunup to sundown with a 70 pound pack, 50 pounds of which was food, including a 9-pound sausage the dimensions of a baseball bat.

This was before freeze-dried gourmet food like ‘Thai Chicken Curry’ and ‘Chocolate Brownies with Raspberry Coulis.’ Nothing called ‘coulis’ was to be found anywhere near a backpack. 


Camping at Lake Garnet

Camping at Lake Garnet


The fact that Bruce could hike those distances meant that he was tempted or even compelled to do it, so that the amazing landscape of the Sierra was just a blur.

Yes, he hiked most of the Muir Trail in 11 days with his best childhood friend (except for the section we’re about to do!) without resupplying, but desires have changed. The mountains thankfully remain, ever-patient, perhaps slightly amused by the frantic human activity around them.


A Walking Meditation


But now the overriding concern is not miles, but rather exaltation, not just externally as in altitude, but in an internal sense. A change of environment profound enough to make one stop and think, a slowing down and opening up, a walking meditation. 


A Walking Meditation

A Walking Meditation


Bruce used to spend a week in the autumn at a Zen monastery not far from Santa Cruz, secreted away in a deep canyon with a gurgling clear stream at the bottom and hot springs bubbling up, collected in an airy stone and wood bathhouse.

It took about two days for the hamster wheel of his thoughts to stop squeaking long enough to hear the river, smell the piney forest and resinous underbrush, and sit with himself.

Long, slow thoughts would emerge like ponderous fish from the deep, lazily finning just under the surface.


Reflecting Pool

Reflecting Pool


In time, it has become harder to stop and hear oneself, life has endless tasks and distractions, accelerated by electronic connectedness.

Almost to the point of anxiety—What if we get into camp by lunchtime? What will we do all day? No texts to respond to, no apps to check, no dumb videos to watch, nothing but each other and a quiet vastness. Might we go insane?


The Scourge of Creeping Timidity


This trans-legal phenomenon is what we call “creeping timidity.”

Some of it comes from physical aging and is rooted in good sense (there are physical activities in the mountains that are extreme and should be carefully considered, you could die up there), but some of them are a kind of feedback loop: “I am feeling timid because part of me feels I *should* be feeling timid.”

A friend once said his therapist told him:


You are “should-ing” all over yourself.

-Unknown Psychotherapist


The challenge is to separate those two things, the timidity based in physical reality and the creeping timidity that comes in quietly like fog. 

Perhaps the “should” side of timidity has to do with accumulated experience.


Explore & Exploit


Life is a balance of “explore and exploit,” meaning either searching/finding things of interest or using/incorporating them into one’s life.

As experience accumulates, the balance tends to tilt towards “exploit” and away from “explore,” perhaps because one gets better at the process. It becomes harder and harder to leave a successful mine, even if one is running out of ore.

One gets soft and lazy and comfortable.

Creative pursuits like art or music offer the possibility of revisiting the explore/exploit process and starting it anew, because they do not generally involve mortal risk.

And discoveries made in the process can slosh over to the rest of your life. Not necessarily to the point of climbing sheer cliffs in the mountains, but perhaps to the point of seeing new places and ideas or even old ones anew for the first time. 


Reflecting On Our Journey

Reflecting On Our Journey (Bruce & our fellow backpacker & friend, Catherine)




We have now returned from the hiking trip. We are not too much the worse for wear, though it was extremely strenuous and took an unbelievable amount of toil to push our old bodies short distances at 10,000 feet, an altitude usually reserved for condors and eagles.

But we did it, and are feeling proud if not smug at this moment. Also sore and chapped and dehydrated, but that will pass.

Before we left, Nancy remained uncommitted to the adventure, not sure if she wanted to sign up for something sure to be massively challenging, likely uncomfortable, and possibly dangerous. 

So Bruce wrote her the following:


A Love Letter


Dear love and light of my life;

I want to figure out how to make the Sierra not just endurable, not just pleasant, but exalting.

Of all the stone cathedrals I’ve ever visited, the granite vaults of the Sierra outshine them all, grander and older.

Of all the stunning medieval stained glass I’ve ever seen, the high azure lakes embraced by the Sierra outdo them all.

My soul sings in the high haunts of the mountain gods, as powerful as Bach’s organ music to me.

Each visit is a sacrament rather than just a hike, each step gradus ad Parnassum, a visit to a temple no human could ever build.




Lessons Learned


What did we learn from this experience?


There were times we felt so sore and tired and beat we wanted to be helicoptered out of there. It helped to have the long nights of autumn and to sleep 12 hours a night.

There are many things that are better dealt with after a delay, even though it is often considered beneficial to deal with feelings immediately. Many things are better with a bit of aging, and we hope we’re some of them.


There were no electronic distractions, the daily exigencies of climbing and navigating and making/breaking camp were all-absorbing, even to the point of chasing out contemplative thought and more importantly, free-floating anxiety and worry.

Powerful things can happen even when you’re not thinking Deep Thoughts™, or maybe especially. As the Buddhist saying goes, “Chop wood and carry water.”


We’re older and weaker and slower, so it takes more time to do things high up in the mountains.

And pack animals might not be a bad idea for some future high mountain trips. But we’ll find a way.


Because of our slow progress, we changed our plans and came out to a different trailhead than we originally planned.

This was a challenge because our car wasn’t there. That involved considerable transportation challenges, but we found our way back to our car with negotiation, some money, and a short respite at a spa with a fine celebratory dinner in-between.
All of these lessons apply to aspirations and projects of all sorts, particularly creative ones that involve a lot of experimentation, frustration, and lack of feedback. These enterprises are voyages in themselves, even if not physical like our recent hike.

From our studio to yours,

Nancy & Bruce


P.S. Find out what all the fuss is about. Get your copy of the award-winning book The Adjacent Possible: Guidebook & Stories Of Artistic Transformation 

It’s chock full of gorgeous paintings from twenty-five artists, along with foundational concepts to take your art to the stratosphere of WOW!


Click on the arrow above to watch each artist receive their book package.





Nancy Painting on Blank Canvas





P.S.S. Leave your thoughts and comments below. We can’t wait to hear what you have to say.


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