Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Rediscover Catholicism – Giving reasons to believe.

Matthew Kelly's book is about an ancient faith in the modern world. It is about something profound, something deep, laid out in simple terms. It is a handbook about finding and living the faith. It is about change, change for the better. It is about becoming the best version of yourself. I hope this blog post will inspire you to read the book.

The Catholic Church, despite our faults and failings, is an incredible institution. But we have forgotten our story. Every single day the Catholic Church feeds, clothes and houses more people, takes care of more sick people, visits more prisoners and educates more people than any other institution on earth. Almost the entire western world is educated because of the church's pioneering role in universal education. Our history is not without blemish and our future will not be without blemish. But there is a genius in Catholicism, if we just take the time and make the effort to humbly explore it. Kelly states that there is nothing wrong with Catholicism that can't be fixed with what is right with Catholicism; if you and I are not part of the solution, we are part of the problem; and if 67 million Catholics in the US stepped it up a notch, something incredible would happen. Granted that the faith is old, but does that make it irrelevant? If you had an ancient treasure map, would you throw it away just because it is old? No. The age of the map doesn't matter. What matters is whether or not it leads to treasure.

The basic tenet of Catholicism is that we were created to love and be loved. But the modern philosophies of individualism (what's in it for me), hedonism (pleasure is the ultimate goal of life) and minimalism (minimum effort, maximum reward) have taken over. We confuse pleasure with happiness. Our physical needs and desires dominate our existence. We have forgotten the other three aspects of the human person – emotional, intellectual and spiritual. Kelly calls for discipline in our lives and writes that freedom without discipline is impossible. Discipline is a faithful friend who will introduce you to your true self. Discipline is the worthy protector who will defend you from your lesser self. And discipline is the extraordinary mentor who will challenge you to become the best version of yourself and all God created you to be.

Faith in the teachings of Christ is fundamental. If you allow the values and principles of the gospel to guide you, it will turn out for the best. It will not always turn as you wish, but you will be a better person for having lived the gospel in that situation, and because of that, your future will be richer. Faith is about walking humbly with God, allowing Him to take your hand and lead you. But too often, we want to race off ahead of our loving father, running frantically in all directions. We don't want to miss anything. We want to experience everything that this life has to offer, so we run here and there in search of happiness - but we are always left yearning for more. Faith is about God's will. Stop trying to put together a master plan for your life and for your happiness. Instead seek out the Master's plan for your life and for your happiness. Faith in the teaching of the church is important. Those willing to learn from others mistakes can live with the wisdom of the old from the earliest ages. It is not necessary to make all the mistakes yourself to learn about life, yourself and others.

On sin and repentance
Repent means turn back to God. It's not about condemnation. It is about apologizing. If we never apologize in our relationship with God, that relationship will suffer the fate that so many modern human relationships are suffering. Self introspection will get you to know yourself. The gifts of self knowledge include freedom from the world's image of who you are and an unquenchable compassion for others. The more you get to know yourself and your sinfulness, the more you are able to understand others and be tolerant of their faults, failings, flaws, addictions and brokenness. Understanding leads to peace. Learn to prize the peace in your soul above all else.

On prayer
Kelly's prayers are very practical. First, he prays to make sense of things. He also prays because he wants to live life deeply and deliberately. Thirdly, he prays to build up the kind of inner density required to prevent the culture from swallowing him up. Our world has been filled with noise, and as a result, we can no longer hear the voice of God in our lives. We should make a daily commitment to enter into the classroom of silence and listen to God. And remember, prayer doesn't change God, prayer changes us.

The Mass is the highest form of prayer. The Mass is not about whom you sit next to. Its not about which priest says mass. Its not about what you wear or who is there. Mass is not about the music. Its not even about the preaching. It is about gathering as a community to give thanks to God for all the blessings he fills our lives with. It is about receiving the body and blood of Christ, not just physically, but spiritually. Perhaps you have been receiving the Eucharist physically every Sunday for your whole life. Next Sunday, prepare yourself, be conscious of the marvel, the wonder, the mystery, and receive spiritually. And the prayers of the Mass are profound and beautiful. Rediscover them.

The present and the future.
We have our problems. These problems can fill the heart with a great sadness, but they should not lead to despair. They should be seen as opportunities for us to change, grow, and become more effective at meeting people where they are and leading them to where God calls them to be. There are calls for change. The environment changes, the culture changes, people change, but the truth does not change; the supernatural realities of faith, hope and love do not change; and God does not change.

What do we need to do.
First and foremost, we need to inspire people. We have failed non believers. We have failed to communicate the value of living a life of virtue and faith. Remember, “Don't tell them, show them.” We have to communicate through the authenticity of our lives. Jesus didn't promise an easy way. He promised that we would be ridiculed, prosecuted and unappreciated as he himself was, but that we would nonetheless experience joy and fullness of life. We have to take the Church to the people. We have a duty to study and know the issues that turn Catholics away, so we can build the necessary bridges of truth and knowledge that will allow them to return to the fullness of our ancient and beautiful faith. If you want to grow in faith, identify the teachings of the Catholic church that you find most difficult to understand and accept, then read about it. Study that issue.

There will always be questions. Questions are an integral part of the spiritual journey. The temptation is to despise questions and the uncertainty they represent. But uncertainty is a spiritual gift designed to help us grow. From time to time, great questions arise in our hearts and our minds. When that happens to you, don't let your heart be troubled. Learn to enjoy uncertainty. Learn to love the questions. The questions are life.

The bottom line, the ultimate aim, the purpose of life is to love. What really counts is not money, or titles, or possessions, but the way we love others. Let us rediscover life through the Catholic Church.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Bike Tour - Crater Lake and NorCal

“The wonders of the world are only made more magnificent when you approach them from the humble perch of a bicycle.” - Bound South. True that. Biking in Crater Lake NP, the Redwoods NP and along Hwy 1 in northern California lets you experience some of the most breathtaking scenery up close, personal and at a meditative pace at which you can truly soak in it's magnificence.

I took the train up to Klamath Falls OR, hopped on my bike and rode to Crater Lake and then on to Crescent City and south along the coast to Santa Rosa. I have wanted to do this for a long time, to ride my bicycle for days on end with the open road in front of me. Over a period of 9 days, I covered about 630 miles with 45,000 feet of elevation gain. And I was rewarded with sights and experiences of a lifetime.

Being at Crater Lake is like being inside a postcard. The serene blue waters with gray mountains in the background are a mesmerizing sight. Riding through the forests of Oregon calmed my mind and cleared my lungs. And then the Giants of NorCal, the Redwoods. They are a sight to behold, tall and stately, yet quiet and gentle.
And the scent and sounds compliment what you see, to create something nearest to perfection. Riding by the ocean is always a joyful experience. The vast blue expanse, the cool breeze, the waves tirelessly carving away at the rugged cliffs, the tiny sandy beaches, the muted lighthouses, everything about it speaks to the soul. A sunset over the ocean is timeless in its beauty. The rolling farmland interspersed with tiny towns took me far far away from my daily routine.

The people you meet along the way is surely one of the highlights of a bike tour. Troy, a fun guy from Seattle, became my riding buddy for the second half of my trip. He was riding from Seattle to Big Sur. And there was this British couple in their early 20's who were hitch hiking and camping their way down the coast. I had thought that that happened only in books. Then there was this guy who hardly carried anything besides his sleeping bag. He slept under a tree or the stars every night. And there was this guy from South Carolina who biked across the US, passing through the Nevada deserts in June! And he didn't have a stove.
He cooked all his meals with fire made from firewood he gathered every evening. The list is endless. There are a lot of fun, quirky, adventurous, insane people out there.

My daily routine started at the crack of dawn. Eat breakfast, wash, pack up and hit the road. Then pedal the whole day with breaks for food and pictures. Reach a campsite in the evening, set up camp, dinner and hang out with others there or go exploring the state park or national park. Hit the sack at 9pm. Food; well, the days were filled with endless eating. Breakfast, followed by hourly snacks of trail mix, peanut butter and bagels, and fruit. I usually had two lunches at some deli or cafe. And then more snacks, followed by dinner at campsite.

The main daily activity of the trip was biking of course. Hours of pedaling through beautiful countryside and small towns. I liked the sound of my tires on the road when I was cruising along. Mile markers were the faithful companions. Of course, it was not all cruising. Uphills always lurked around the corner. Even the smallest uphill is killer if you are not patient. Use granny gears and great granny gears and the steepest climb will be overcome in due time. There were numerous occasions when I had to put mind over matter and keep going.
“End of Lane” signs on the uphills usually signified end of climbs and were much looked forward to. And sometimes I didn't look forward to the downhills either. The toil of the uphill would leave me drenched in sweat which would freeze me as I whizzed downhill. And since drag is proportional to velocity squared, the steep downhills are a major waste of energy.

The trip went to plan as my bike and body did great. I used the Oregon DOT, Adventure Cycling and Krebbs maps to plan my trip. These maps help you get off the highway when possible and take you along scenic routes. They also provide additional information about campsites, towns and services, elevation profiles, etc. which is useful when on the road. Smart phones might not work at most places as cellphone network coverage is quite poor.

A couple of things that I would do differently, given a chance. Do not camp at Del Norte SP. It is a lovely park, but the campsite is so far down in the valley, that it took me close to an hour to get back on the highway the next day. Secondly, less daily mileage would be better for my body and also give room for weather and mechanical issues, if any. Something like 60-65 miles a day would fit my level better.

I am glad I was tougher than I thought I was. Maybe that's because I simply had to be. I think a lot of life is like that. The edge of toughness can be dulled by too much comfort. Get out there. Life is an adventure, dream it and live it.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Hiking Half Dome in Yosemite NP

As you drive into Yosemite, you can't help but wonder if God is an outdoor enthusiast. The lofty granite peaks stand tall and mighty, overlooking the verdant green valley below. Waterfalls cascade hundreds of feet down the sheer cliffs. An unbridled display of nature's grandeur. As John Muir said about Yosemite, “It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature, I was ever permitted to enter.”

The half dome hike was the centerpiece of my trip. Step 1 of a Half Dome hike is to get permits. There is the season lottery and the daily lottery. If neither attempt is successful, try the begging lottery as we did when we were one permit short for our group. We basically asked everyone along the way if they had extra permits. And we eventually found one! If I ever have extra permits, I will put a sign on my backpack saying so, when I hike the trail. I think it would be a crime to let Half Dome permits go unused. The permits are checked just before the sub dome, which is well before the cables. If you don't have a permit, you don't even get a decent view of the Half Dome.

A few pointers to any Half Dome dreamers. Start early to avoid traffic in the valley, to find parking close to the trail head and to avoid crowds at the cables. We reached the parking lot at about 7am. The hike is about 18 miles round trip from the nearest parking lot. It took us about 11 hours including a half hour spent at the top of Half Dome. The Mist Trail is fairly well marked and easy to follow as it snakes along the Merced River. The Vernal Falls and the Nevada Falls, in full flow during the early spring season, painted a beautiful picture. And I love the sound of rushing water. The trail can be strenuous at times. Some people recommend hiking poles. I had them but didn't use them. Take plenty of water and/or a water filter. The last place where you can filter water from a stream is at the Lower Yosemite campground, which is about 4 miles into the hike. The trail is shaded for most part which is a bonus. That is until you get to the sub dome which is exposed granite with a few hardy trees providing some shaded rest points. And the Half Dome itself is completely exposed. Gloves are useful on the cables section to haul yourself up without ripping your palms.

The highlight or the tough part, depending on your perspective, is the cables section. Metal cables along with wooden slats provide for a way up the steep and slippery granite rock face. At some points, the inclination is about 45 degrees I read. You will need some upper body strength to pull yourself up when there is no traction for your feet. You can take your time and rest at the wooden slats which are spaced about 10 feet apart. But you will cause a traffic jam as there is only one way up and down and it is impossible for people to pass you when there are hikers coming down too. So for the sake of all, keep yourself moving. It took me about 20 min to get up. And about 30 min to come down as traffic had picked up significantly by then. It is very safe as long as you don't do anything stupid, like climb when it is wet or go outside the cables.

The views from the top are absolutely gorgeous. Granite hill tops with a smattering of snow as far as the eye can see. Vertical cliffs drop down into the lush valley floor. Evergreens hug the sides of the mountains wherever they can. Streams rush down to the valley floor in the distance. The cool breeze refreshes the weary mind and body as you soak in the exhilarating views This truly is one of nature's grandest monument.

Half dome has to be in the bucket list of every avid hiker. A great challenge with sweet rewards. The only downside in my opinion is that it is a trail that goes out and back, in the sense it is not a loop, unless you take a detour on the John Muir trail towards the end. That means once you are done with the summit, you have to drag your butt 8 miles back down to the trail head along the same trail you had just seen. Maybe that gives you time to ponder upon, to digest the beauty of Yosemite or maybe you can just enjoy the scenery a second time with the sun at a different angle, especially the waterfalls that face west.

The Lonely Planet guide certainly is not kidding when it says that Yosemite makes Switzerland look like God's practice run!

Friday, April 27, 2012

(Bike) Tour the Bay Area

Don't wait to go cross country, go overnight, says Bike Overnights. A long bike tour is my dream vacation. A day will dawn, when I will ride the open road in front me over thousands of miles. But until then, I will have be content with overnight bike tours on weekends.
The SF Bay Area is blessed with gorgeous scenery and pleasant climate that make many bike tour options possible.

I wrote about my first bike tour, Santa Cruz – Monterey – Carmel, last labor day weekend, which was published in Bike Overnights. This route takes you through the farmland and sand dunes of central CA coast. Public transit is available from SJ to Santa Cruz and from Monterey to SJ. It is generally a good idea to go south as the winds tend to be from the north. Veterans park campsite is the best option for a night stop on this trip.

SF to Santa Cruz is a fine touring option too. We started at the SF Caltrain station and followed the waterfront, first due west and then south till we hit Hwy 1, which takes you all the way to Santa Cruz.
The trip is about 90 miles. We stopped for the night at Pigeon Point lighthouse hostel, a fun and affordable place right by the ocean. The hot tub overlooking the ocean is pretty sweet. The hostel has a fully furnished kitchen where you can cook your meals. It's a great place to meet other fun people. And the elegant white lighthouse on a the rocky coast makes for a postcard picture. The scenery along the route, as with all of coastal CA, is beautiful. Farmland, small towns, hills, dunes and beaches. And Swanton Berry Farm in Davenport, with its delicious food and honor payment system is a must visit. Don't forget to catch some surfers in action near the lighthouse in Santa Cruz. The Santa Cruz to SJ bus service is a convenient connection to the south bay to complete the loop.

The SF – Bodega Bay – SF tour takes your through the rolling hills and farms of Marin and Sonoma counties. We headed north through Fairfax and Nicasio, east of Three Peaks in Marin county.
I loved the cozy and rustic feel of the small towns in Marin County. It is a world away from the hustle and bustle of the Bay Area. Cows and sheep grazing on the verdant hills make it perfect picture. A stretch of road through a redwood forest calms the soul. We camped at Doran City Park, a basic but comfortable campsite that has showers. The next day, we headed south along Hwy 1 until Stinson Beach, took the Panaromic Hwy to cut across east to Mill Valley and onto SF. The ride along Tomales Bay and Bolinas lagoon is quite spectacular. And the Panoramic Hwy needs to be given due respect for challenging every muscle and sinew in my body. All in all, a hundred and fifty miles of unending bliss.

Soak in the wine country as you pedal through the storied vineyards of the world famous Napa Valley.
Our tour started with a trip on a ferry from SF to Vallejo. We then headed north towards Napa and hit the Silverado Trail. Miles and miles of bright green vineyards, interspersed with beautiful wineries. Bothe-Napa SP makes for a good stop for the night. It has a hiker/biker site and all facilities. Day two took us east over the hills into Santa Rosa. Hop on a Golden Gtae transit bus to get to SF. This 65 mile trip is great way to see one of the most famous wine producing regions in the world.

Big Sur, a bit of heaven on earth. I had blogged about the Big Sur bike tour with Almaden Cycling and Touring Club. I didn't do this ride as a self supported bike tour. It might be a little too strenuous to bike this loop on a fully loaded bike. But the brave souls who take this one on, will be duly rewarded. Big Sur is definitely one of the most beautiful places I have visited. Take it all in at the relaxed pace of a bike ride.

Some useful tips for aspiring bike tourists. Map your ride using Ride with GPS. This website gives elevation profiles of your route. Your pace will be much slower on a hilly terrain as compared to a flat one. Also check for wind directions as a strong headwind is like a continuous uphill not followed by a downhill. Gear includes a touring bike (or a road bike with a metal frame), panniers, tools and camping gear. I have a Novara Safari touring bike with Ortileb panniers. Go discover the Bay Area, one weekend overnight trip at a time.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Maybe biking is a great idea.

The most efficient car is the one that you don't have and the second most efficient car is the one not in use. For me its the latter as I caved in and bought a car a few months back. But I still bike because it is sustainable. You can protest oil pipelines and offshore drilling with actions that speak louder than words. Even if you don't agree with man made climate change, we can all agree on the other evils associated with drilling and burning oil. From deforestation, to oil spills, wars, acid rain, smog, etc.

And for the I-don't-care-about-wars-and-environment folk, biking is cheap. Driving costs approx 30cents to a mile, whereas biking is virtually free. Some initial investment and once in a while repairs.
It is good for health (will get you those washboard abs :D) as it burns about 10 cals/min. When there is no time to exercise, you know that you exercise for at least a few minutes a day on your commute. Then there is the community aspect. Less noise and smoke from traffic, reduced congestion on streets, pedestrian safety etc. It brings people together. You are no longer insulated from the world in your metal cage. It is good for your mental health as you don't get frustrated with traffic. Parking is usually not an issue.
You reduce parking requirements at shopping centers saving a few square feet from being paved. Imagine the amount of open space we would have if half the parking lots were converted to parks. Or tennis courts! Oh and I get gift certificates for biking to work. Sweet deal eh?

Some practical suggestions if you decide on commuting by bike. Panniers are very handy to avoid carrying backpacks that give you a sweaty back. If biking to work, you may have to take a change of clothes depending on weather, distance and fitness levels. Safety is paramount. I know many people fear getting hit by a car. I wouldn't say unjustified fears, but I think a little overblown. You should ride defensively. You will not win a battle with something 20 times your weight. So don't bother tempting fate. Wear a florescent vest and use front and rear lights to improve your visibility to drivers. Be predictable and try to anticipate the actions of drivers. Don't worry, it becomes second nature after a while. And always wear a helmet. Some practical info for new bikers can be found here.

Biking is a win win win win win situation. And I know that it is much easier to sit in your car and drive away, specially after a long workday. But how much good has come in this world because the easier path was taken? Get out there and put your foot down on a different pedal. Hop on that bike and rediscover the joy of biking. Remember the thrill, the exhilaration, the independence our bikes gave us as kids? Trust me, it is still the same.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Death Valley NP – Explore the Extreme.

It is one of the hottest, lowest and driest places on earth. Death valley has a mesmerizing barren scenery that left me in awe of the desert. It is a serene beauty. Something that has stood the test of time. Unchanging and vast. You feel the force of the sun and hear the silence of the night. You can be alone, with only the wind for company. The myriad rocks colors and formations impress you by day and the countless stars dazzle you by night. Free from light pollution, clean dry air and the high elevations of the mountains makes it one of the best places to gaze at the night sky.

Most of the places to see in Death Valley are at their best at sunrise or sunset, when the gentle and low angle sun rays bring out the colors of the landscape.
Everyday we had a routine to leave campsite before dawn and patiently wait for the sunrise and then in the evening, patiently wait for the sunset. When was the last time you saw the sunrise and the sunset for four consecutive days? And no showers for four days. We lived it up, desert style.

A few pointers about a trip to Death Valley. Food and gas is expensive. So load up on both before you enter. Always carry extra water in the car. Most trailheads don't have water or restrooms. Do the needful at the campsites. The trails are not very well marked. It can be fun to explore your way around, but at the same time be annoying, when you can't find your way.
A four wheel drive, high clearance vehicle is needed to visit some of the places in Death Valley. Listed below is what can be reached with a sedan if you don't mind a mile or two on gravel roads.

Day 1:
Artists drive – Winding road through a rocky landscape. Good way to get up close to the rocky landscape.
Devil's Golf Course - Must see the ragged landscape resulting from erosion of salt flats.
Badwater (sunset) – The lowest point in North America. Brilliant white salt flats.
Camp at Furnace creek - Nice campground, and you get cellphone service here.

Day 2: Zabrinski point (sunrise) – A great place to see the glorious rocky landscape.
Dante's ridge hike – The length of hike depends on how far you wanna go. We hiked to Mt. Perry which is about 4 miles one way and were treated to stunning views of the valleys on either side of the ridge. Good place to escape the 'drive around' crowd.
Harmony Borax works – Visit only if you are in the area. Good for history buffs.
Golden Canyon (sunset) - Easy hike in a canyon lined by bright yellow sandstone walls. Don't forget to scramble up some of the many gullies along the sides.
Camp at Furnace creek.
Day 3: Devils Cornfield (sunrise) – A decent place to catch the sunrise, but shouldn't be top priority.
Rhyolite Ghost town – Definitely not worth the long drive. But gas is cheap at Beatty, a nearby town. So might be worth the drive just to fill up.
Scotty's castle – Fun place, great stories and a nice break from the barren desert landscape. Also, they have a working Pelton Turbine that's 80 years old!
Ubehebe crater (sunset) – Worth it if in the area. Fun to go down the crater walls, but a pain to come back up.
Camp at Stovepipe Wells – Decent campground, but not as nice as Furnace creek.

Day 4 – Mesquite Flat Dunes (sunrise) – Dunes are a must see. Best to catch them when sun is low in the sky to get the shadows. Morning also means footprint free sand patterns.
Mosaic Canyon – More rock colors and formations and a good place for rock scrambling.
Mesquite Flat Dunes (sunset) – Had to see the dunes from a different angle.
Camp at Wildrose campground – A high altitude desolate campground. Best place to enjoy the night sky. Minimal facilities, but has running water.

Day 5 – Charcoal Kilns – Interesting structures, but not much else
Wildrose peak hike – Did partly. Was fun to walk in a winter wonderland in Death Valley!