Mushin in the Mountains

An ethereal journey through nature

By Ryan Willms

After some casual hellos, smiles and nods, a shake out of the limbs, a half stretch, a few deep breaths and a quick sip of water, we’re off. As usual, we being near sea level and embark on a step incline ascending upwards through low brush and clean morning air. The climb brings on heavy breathing as the early casual chatter turns to shortened inhales and audible exhales for the next couple of miles as we find our footing. The group has broken into smaller packs now. Silently acknowledging our four-man tribe, we crest the first peak together with quiet smiles as the sun pours over us and into the Pacific Ocean behind.

 

Nothing needs to be said, we make eye contact and keep moving forward. Our breathing eases as the soft crunch of dirt and rocks beneath our feet creates a rhythmic pace that keeps us in line. We zig zag on single track switch backs, continuing upwards but at a quicker clip. Our breathing has caught up with our pace and is much deeper and smoother now—in and out through our noses we breath in the scents of the local vegetation. Verbena, Chamise and Sage line the path and offer bursts of overwhelming flavor as we move through varying landscapes.

Even though no one in the group is hungry, we aren’t tracking anything, and our village doesn’t depend on us bringing home dinner, there is still something very primal about the experience. I’ve never even been hunting, let alone a persistence hunt, but I can imagine the similarities between modern day distance running and the ancient process. We take turns leading the pack through the mountains with very few words, but there is an understanding. We never spoke about how we would run and work together—I don’t even know the other guys—but we’re in this together for however long it’s going to take and how tough it gets. The sun is getting higher with the temperature, and there isn’t much shade left on this side of the mountain. We keep moving.

 

After a stretch of rolling trail a patch of sage wafts into our faces as we blaze through at a quick pace. The soft fragrant plants offer a welcome change from dry desert patches and sweat soaked polyester. Our pace on this open span of the trail is changing again and with another ascent ahead we decide to take a break before the climb. Sitting on rocks we silently pass around almonds and dried berries, taking small sips of water and sharing quick smiles and joyful nods as we recognize the buoyancy we’re feeling from the last few miles while wiping the sweat from our faces.

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It’s getting hotter and it’s time to head back toward the ocean. I’m looking forward to the salty air but first we go up, again. The pace is slow and the breathing heavy. We’re in plain sight of the sun rising overhead but we move steadily on. It’s easy to want to move quickly up the rocky creek-bed-like trail but I keep in mind what I was once told, “If you can take three steps in stead of two, take three,” so I keep my strides short as the lactic acid builds up. I am hoping everyone is feeling the same. We reach the crest of the scramble together.

 

It’s been hours now and the final leg is ahead of us with the ocean calling out for a cool reprieve but we’re not home yet. I personally live for the fast technical descent. It’s where I fall into a deep flow state and a place of no mind. It’s total freedom and peace. Working with gravity and an inner sense of wisdom that seems to be able to recognize exactly where each step needs to land to propel me down the mountain in a fraction of a second, I’ve played sports my entire life and there have only been a handful of times when I’ve been able to consciously get to that place, and more often than recently, it’s when I’m coming down a mountain. The air blowing past, the soft touch of leaves and branches as my legs let me bounce down the trail—its absolute zen—and inside myself I can feel something awake, “Oh, hi Ryan.”

Photographs by Fahim Kassam

Earlier in the run, talking was prohibited by deep breathing and lactic acid build up, and now there’s no time to even think, so the small pack speeds downward in complete silence, aside from the loose rocks falling over the path as each of us file down the tight track. The ocean and parking lot are now within sight and we ease the pace in anticipation for our re-entry into the world as we know it the other 164 hours a week. Our legs are tired, our bodies exhausted and we’ve brought nothing back. No words of wisdom, no dinner for our family, not much of a story to tell, but somehow it was perfect.

This article was written by Ryan Willms and published on January 12, 2019