Year End Reflections

In looking back over the year, I feel immensely privileged to have had so many meaningful and positive experiences in sharing with the youth what I have come to call the ceremony of nature. This may sound a bit exaggerated but living in the realm of such beauty and reality of the natural world, it’s just how I feel.

As we pass the winter solstice, and the angle of the earth’s rotation begins to swing our northern half into ever so slightly longer days, I am so grateful to have the opportunity to work on this project with such a diverse group of people involved with Sacred Rok. Life continues to unfold in ways that inspire me to deeply reflect on my relationship with Yosemite, coming as a youth and always looking for the next challenge – from the next boulder problem to the next wall and adventures beyond in the Himalayas.

It feels like Sacred Rok for me has become a climb of a lifetime, putting together everything from my adult life to build on and expand into the reality of being human and continuing to stay connected to the lessons of nature. So I sit here, in my cabin in El Portal listening to the rain, pausing and contemplating the possibilities that nature brings to youth, and imagining how to build healthy communities.

I’ve had some good conversations with my friend Kenji recently about what this all means. He feels like he misses out on a lot by not

having as much time to spend with Sacred Rok as he would like, joining me occasionally in the ceremonies of nature with the kids, helping me with the newsletter stories and constructing our narrative. We are so different in the paths we have taken to Sacred Rok, but share the view and uniqueness of what we are trying to accomplish.

As an education professor at Stanford working to understand and fix problems of educating our youth, Kenji has reached a point in his career where this maturity, so to speak, is making him much sought after, to do more with his knowledge and experience to help school districts and government policies.

Yet he thinks that sitting in a small community center in Planada, talking and reflecting on our experiences in nature with Oswaldo (one of the Sacred Rok kids), as we did last Monday holds great meaning, even richer and deeper than changing government policies. He’s learning new things, and feels the need to do more, to more deeply understand how we learn. He even mentioned the Planada kids at one of his public lectures recently at the Ronald Reagan Center in Washington, using this experience to point out how we need to broaden our concept of what it means to be educated.

Kenji and I also had the chance to visit later that week at the annual Christmas gathering of friends of the Yosemite Conservancy at the Log Cabin in the Presidio in San Francisco. That was an event filled with the luminaries of the philanthropic world, a veritable “Who’s Who” of active supporters of Yosemite. As we mingled and enjoyed the good food and drinks, we were struck by the contrast in the worlds, having just been in Planada a couple of days earlier. I had gone that day to Planada from my climbing dojo in Yosemite – another big contrast – and now here we were in the elite world of San Francisco philanthropy. What does this all mean?

We feel that we have a unique story going on and a diverse collaboration of people that form Sacred Rok. We want to keep focus on the fact that true change comes from the power of the individual in the presence of a teacher -- nature. We look to nature to release the clarity of our innate senses. As Ueshiba sensei wrote in the Art of Peace about Aikido: “The only cure for materialism is the cleansing of the six senses (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind). If the senses are clogged, ones’ perception is stifled. The more it is stifled, the more contaminated the senses become. This creates disorder in the world, and that is the greatest evil of all. Polish the heart, free the six senses and let them function without obstruction, and your entire body and soul will glow.”

To help us share this vision with you, our friend Francisco Mendoza from the Planada group produced a short video - in watching it, we hope that you feel as inspired as we do.

It continues to be an honor to share these thoughts and experiences with you.

Ron Kauk

Here is an update and summary from our Chair of the Board, Nancy Goodban.

Dear Friends of Sacred Rok:

As 2010 comes to a close, I wanted to thank you for your support of Sacred Rok. We have been in operation as a non-profit now for a year and a half, and in this short time we have connected with youth from the Merced area through a variety of partnerships, allowing what Ron calls “the ceremony of nature” to take place in Yosemite. These are kids who otherwise might not have access to the healing powers of nature, and so we are very proud of our accomplishments.

In 2010, Ron led ten trips -- 3 day trips for Probation youth, 3 day trips for Planada kids, 2 camping trips for Probation youth, and 2 camping trips for foster youth. The best moments have come in listening to the water, taking in expansive views of the high Sierras, or encountering a Mountain King snake. In the presence of natural beauty, we appreciate the power of slowing down and having the time to recognize the senses, clearing them out in order to gain balance.

At the same time, we built our infrastructure through our website and this newsletter. We completed the administrative basics: our tax exempt status, financial reports and insurance. The Merced County Human Services Agency provided customized training to our volunteers and staff regarding the emotional and behavioral impacts of child abuse, mandatory child abuse reporting, sexual harassment prevention, domestic violence, and bullying. We adopted anti-abuse, harassment, and bullying policies for adults and youth participants, as well as other basic policies including background checks and confidentiality.

We reached out to the outdoor industry and were grateful to receive cash or equipment donations from the Clif Bar Family Foundation, Patagonia, The California Endowment, Kleen Kanteen, Camelback, Kelty, Sierra Designs, North Face, REI, and Slumberjack. Ron gave educational presentations including at the Stanford University Alpine Club and to REI staff at Yosemite National Park as well as to several REI venues in the San Francisco Bay Area. And of course, many of you have contributed generously, for which we are extremely grateful.

We have developed a curriculum which outlines our philosophy, approach, and activities including learning outcomes and objectives as well as a logic model.

The Board has also identified the value of having an identified site for camping and other activities. We are working with youth who are at or near maturity, and want to provide a safe haven for them to return to at any time. Our vision is a small facility on several acres in or near Yosemite, where young people can come at any time once they have graduated from foster care or Probation. We are not sure how to make this happen, but are exploring various options – and your good ideas would be much appreciated.

Finally, please help us by considering the purchase of our first product line – Ron’s Midnight Lightning T-shirt, which we will provide for a donation of $50 or more. We produced it in collaboration with good friend and designer Jeremy Collins, and it is made from organic cotton. It would make a nice gift for a climber friend of yours, and help support a good cause.

Thanks, and may 2011 bring peace to the world and happiness to you and your loved ones.

Nancy Goodban

Chair of the Board

And now a few words from our cook:

A year and a half ago, when Sacred Rok was gearing up for it's first camping trip with the youth from HSA Merced they were in need of a cook and someone to manage the camp. Through a series of conversations and shared ideas it was decided that I would take reigns has Camp Chef/Camp Manager.

We wanted to bring the kids to our table; to share our meals with them and our appreciation for the communion food allows for us to have. Part of the idea was to use as much locally grown, organic goods we could find and to share with the youth some understanding about where the food we were eating came from and why it is not only beneficial to our bodies to eat good food but also to the environment.

Sacred Rok is a creative collaboration of a diverse group of people and I wanted to continue the theme of diversity into the food. We have a great advantage living in Yosemite in that the Central Valley rests only 60 miles away, allowing access to an array of locally grown and harvested goods. The youth we interact with all reside in the Central Valley and I found this to be a wonderful opportunity for them to see what amazing bounty grows there amongst them.

While much of the farming in the Valley is large-scale, mono-cultured growing there are quite a bit of small, family operated farms offering a nice assortment of organic fruits, vegetables, legumes and honey. These were and will continue to be some of Sacred Rok's best choices for delicious, nutritious fare. Wild onion and Watercress grow natively in Yosemite and the High Sierra and these were used quite often in my cooking. There were a few times while out on their walks that the kids would harvest these things for us, with the amazement that we could eat what the nature was growing right there.

It was while sharing food with these kids that I started to connect with them on a very basic human level. As we cooked, ate, and cleaned up with each other we shared stories and laughed. Soon they would ask about what we were eating; we talked about where the food came from, what was in it, how I made it and most importantly what was for dessert. Through these shared meals we started to form a trust with one-another, we started to form a community.

In working with the youth through Sacred Rok I aim to continue to connect with them by providing healthy meals in which they take part of by helping with the preparation and by engaging with them in conversation about where our food comes from. In these conversations I hope to shed light on the value of food and the value of taking care of our Earth so that it can continue to provide for us. In this sharing I hope to inspire creativity for Sacred Rok and in these youth, deepening our connection with one-another.

Happy Holidays to you all!

Katie Lambert

Sacred Rok is grateful for the support of the California Endowment, through the Building Healthy Communities Collaborative in Merced, for funding to support the Planada trips.


Driving from Merced to Yosemite, you go through a small town called Planada; interestingly enough, it's the last town before you leave the Central Valley. Most people who drive through it hardly take notice, including myself, unless getting gas or a taco from Ramon’s taco truck parked in the lot next to El Campo Market. I have driven through it hundreds of times, always curious about who lives here.

This past month, we had a couple of day trips with some youths from Planada, thanks to an introduction by our board member, Lamar Henderson. He introduced me to Martín Díaz and Francisco Mendoza who run a program at El Centro, a community center there.

Martín grew up in Huron, a community similar to Planada in many ways, and identifies with the kids as being similar to him. He went from there to UC Berkeley where some of his classes were larger than his high school. And after graduating from “Cal” , he came back to the Central Valley as a community organizer, and runs El Centro.

Francisco grew up in Merced, took lots of Advanced Placement courses at Merced High, and went to San Jose State to major in chemical engineering. But philosophy caught his interest, and he transferred to Fresno State where there is a strong philosophy program. He graduated from there and was planning to go to the Peace Corps to get some international experience. He found a job posting, though, with El Centro, and ended up taking that and, as he said, “I am doing Peace Corps work in my own back yard.”

The kids from Planada are really cool. Oscar, Joey and Eric are in 8th grade. Oswaldo and Daniel (Joey’s brother) are in 10th grade and attend high school in Le Grand (Planada is too small to have a high school). They are the core of the boys in the after-school program at El Centro that Martín and Francisco run. They are a really close unit, with activities after school that keep them occupied and out of trouble.

So, the Planada group has been up here with me twice on day trips – once in Yosemite Valley, and once in Tuolumne Meadows. And they love it for the opportunity to explore around in such beauty and find places that they didn't know existed.

We were in Tuolumne Meadows just last week, as the place was making its magical turn from fall to winter. Kenji came with us, so there were 9 of us. We met at the El Portal store, and went on to Tuolumne. On the way I showed them a secret spring that very few know about, right off the road. We all filled our bottles there and acknowledged how much life this spring was creating. Filling our quart bottles in mere seconds we tried to

calculate how many thousands of gallons were flowing by the minute, the hour and even the day; an interesting opportunity to work into our classroom of nature through observation and appreciation. Our next stop was the west side of Tenaya Lake. It was a partially overcast day, but that did not prevent the guys from wading out in the water to the first set of exposed rocks.

We then took a hike to the other end of the lake. Moving along the trail, in no rush at all, the boys continued to take notice of their surroundings, everything and anything that caught their attention. At one point, Oswaldo spotted an empty soda can on the water’s edge down a fairly steep gully, and he went down to pick it up. Further down the trail I pointed out a climb across the lake on Polly Dome that I had done early in my youth. It was on the last day of a class with the Yosemite Mountain School, and I have such great memories of what that climb meant to me. And I really appreciated the potential of what Yosemite could do for these guys.

We continued down the trail to the other end of the lake; it was windy and cold so we went on to my volunteer campsite at the Tuolumne Meadows campground, where we could enjoy the lunch that Kenji prepared and have a fire. At the campground we went about exploring the river, where some of the guys got in the water despite the chill in the air.

It was funto watch them and know that they could come back to the fire and warm up. Although it was already mid-afternoon, they were eager to keep going, so we hopped in our cars and went to Pothole Dome area and hiked along the river as it began its descent towards the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. All along the way there was a lot of excited chatter, fueled by enthusiasm that they were going to dive in the river where they had seen me in the movie, Return to Balance: A Climber's Journey.

They were also excited connecting with Kenji, asking him how to say all sorts of different things in Japanese. They were making all kinds of trilingual jokes between English, Spanish and Japanese, some not fit to print. As Kenji told me later, he appreciated one guy who said: “ It’s great to be bilingual and make these jokes. I really feel sorry for people who can’t appreciate bilingual jokes.”

We eventually made it down to the cascades. The sun was occasionally showing and there was a breeze that kept things cold. But, they all got in the river anyway. I marveled at their stoke to play in the water, despite the cool air and overcast day. Oscar’s exuberance could be heard throughout the area, maybe to the annoyance of a couple trying to enjoy the solitude – there really was no one around except for us and them. After a lot of shivering and drying off, we walked back as the sun got very low.

This time Martín, Francisco and I suggested we walk back in silence so that we could all listen to the sounds of nature. You could hear the water, the wind, and the crunching of footsteps. You could see the day’s last light hitting the peaks all around us.

We got to a point where the river turned right, opening back up to the meadow. Martín and Francisco handed the boys some notepads and pens, and asked if they would write and picture what they experienced that day. They spent quite a bit of time writing, until it was almost too dark to see. They then asked if they would share it with the group. Here are a few things that they wrote:

“I’ve learned a lot about nature. I heard the wind blowing, the birds chirping... and also got to experience a lot of new things. This is a one of the greatest place I’ve never been before… and going without technology for a while is not that bad…"

“I love when we walk in silence. You see everything in a whole other way. You pay attention to the things you could not hear before, because of a person talking. This Saturday I missed out on three parties, but I had forgotten all about them because of this wonderful place…I love the spring water Ron showed us…it’s so fresh, I can feel it going down my throat.”

“Today was another day without technology… I enjoyed all the peace and quietness... Just listening to nature talk, getting your mind off of every problem at home or at school. We picked up trash on our way, something good for nature.”

The next day, Kenji and I went on a hike out to Dewey Point to get a view of the Valley, and to reflect on our experience.

Some weather had moved in, so there was mist and occasional light rain. The forest along the meadow had different smells that got Kenji’s attention; some pungent, some sweet. We noticed some colorful-looking mushrooms popping out of the ground with markings that looked like something had taken a bite off the top. The moss was looking particularly vibrant and green. Our senses of smell and sight opened up into a youthful enthusiasm, reminding us of what the kids the day before were experiencing. We had a sense of freedom, and in freedom imagination can soar to infinite possibilities.

Arriving at the edge of the rim a few miles down, we encountered a view of the misty valley.

I was awestruck even with the familiarity that I had built over my many years, looking at the place from thousands of angles in all different weather conditions. The panoramic scenery that Yosemite offered at that moment stood in contrast to the microcosmic experiences that we had with the kids along pockets in the Tuolumne River the day before. Each carries a different kind of medicine, and teaches us about life.

What a different reality we had introduced to our Planada group, and what a lesson being in nature, and in particular being in Yosemite had taught us. We are all looking for healing in some way that allows us to balance ourselves. Anyone with an open mind can learn the lessons of nature, and my job is to facilitate and help in the opening of the imagination and senses. We also confirmed that we are really about building sustained relationships between the triangle of the kids, us and nature. So, our curriculum is nature, and nature is learned from the inside-out, not imposed from an outside authority. And our strategy is to enable the building of long-term relationships, not to provide a quick-fix experience. That is how simple it is, like I’ve always felt about climbing – it’s about learning the fundamentals to navigate your environment with respect, responsibility, while at the same time having serious fun.

Sacred Rok is grateful for the support of the California Endowment, through the Building Healthy Communities Collaborative in Merced, for funding to support the Planada trips.

End of Summer

On top of Lembert Dome.

It’s been a nice summer.   Sacred Rok had four camping trips, two in Yosemite Valley in May and June and two at Tuolumne Meadows in July and August.

On our last trip, we had seven teens from Merced County foster care.   We camped at Tuolumne Meadows Campground.  I got to share, with those from the group who got up early, my ritual of greeting the sun with my campfire.  It was good to see Rafael smiling and enjoying the fire and the sunrise, something that he might not forget for a long time.

Every day we took a hike or walk, and had a chance to swim in the river.  We hiked up Lembert Dome, we walked by Pothole Dome to the river, and we walked to Cathedral Lakes.  We also walked over to Soda Springs where the kids tasted the soda water.  They were fascinated by the mineral taste, and the tiny carbonated bubbles rising from the reddish stone.

At Soda Springs, one camper filled an extra canteen to take home for her foster mom to drink.  On our last night around the campfire, Juan shared that he learned something about how people are scared of water and nature.  He recounted that when he bent down to fill his water bottle at Soda Springs, there was a family nearby who watched him in shock.  They couldn’t believe that he would actually drink water straight from the spring.  It made him realize how distant people are from nature.

It meant a lot to me to hear Juan say, at the campfire circle on our last night, that this trip had been the highlight of his life.  It’s been a pretty amazing time for me, too.  The experiences we had with the youths were both ordinary and extraordinary, and that’s the beauty of it.  In these days of the commercial promotion of extreme experiences, it’s great to realize that calmness and connecting to our indigenous nature is where it’s at.  That is the extraordinary.

The kids loved the chance to slow down and learn about nature their own way, by experiencing it.  They loved the food – Katie’s egg and bacon sandwiches for breakfast on a cold morning, or banana pancakes, all made with care and love.  Slowing down, walking, swimming, sunning, breathing, eating – all such ordinary experiences -- truly amazing when you have the chance to appreciate the experience, opening our senses to let nature be the healer.

I want to think of ways in which the appreciation of these episodic moments can be extended and continued to create the being – that is a long-term challenge that we face even as we enjoy and are thankful for the ceremonies of nature that the kids experience on our trips.

This week, the weather in Tuolumne turned cold.  The fall weather brings with it a reflective time, a respect for the change of seasons.  With the experiences of this past year, Sacred Rok is now starting to mature.  We have a nice cadre of young people with whom I have cultivated friendships that I hope will continue to grow.  Leading up to next summer, I will have day trips with small groups coming up from Merced, continuing to develop our appreciation of education, nature’s way.

At the same time, we are working on the inherent tension between our way of doing with the external expectations of being clearer about objectives, curriculum, and teaching.  We believe that structure often works against natural discovery and connecting the experiences to the soul.  Sacred Rok for me is an on-going experiment in how these elements of learning and living can be woven together to inspire a deeper understanding of being human and our responsibility to the earth.


Amazingly, in my past 36 years, not a single summer has gone without experiencing the magic of Tuolumne Meadows. For the last several years, I’ve been camping right next to the river. From the viewpoint that I have at the camp, many natural elements come into play that allow me to reflect on and appreciate my sense of belonging.

Camp has enhanced my own thoughts about connecting to the realities of nature. On most mornings, I wake up before the sun and build a fire. I sit at the camp table, make coffee while enjoying the comfort of the fire, simply observing the changing light bringing in the new day. This has become a profound experience which was inspired by my friend Corbin Harney, a Shoshone elder who passed away a couple of years ago. I visited him a few times at Tecopa Hot Springs where he had a healing center. Every morning he would do this – go out and make his fire before the light, and sing songs with his drum and bring in the new day as the sun rose.

I am realizing while watching these sunrises myself that this is a powerful time of day to acknowledge the beauty of the world we live in, and how it’s taking care of us. In a way, I feel I am finding my personal connectedness that seems to give me more energy and a stronger foundation to what it means to be human. It’s difficult to put such feelings and emotions into words, but these are some of the challenges we address at Sacred Rok.

Starting next week, I am going to get to share this experience with some of the Sacred Rok youths from Merced who will be at this camp, and I am excited about the opportunity. Four guys from probation will be coming up next week, and the following week, we will have a dozen boys and girls from foster care. Katie will be the camp manager, and for the foster kids trip, Nancy and Kenji will take their family summer vacation up here with us to help out.

The river is still flowing pretty fast. The wet winter put quite a snowpack up there, adding to the Lyell Glacier which hopefully will help it survive a bit longer in this period of global warming. The water here is amazing -- so near the source of the flow, part of the natural cycle of water moving through mother earth. This water that flows right by the camp, coming from the snowpack that was created by the winter storms from the Pacific, continues down Tuolumne Canyon. The water flows into the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, and is piped to the Crystal Springs Reservoir right through Redwood City where I grew up. I grew up drinking this very water that flows by me, reminding me of the great cycle of life.

In many ways, I was not that different from the Sacred Rok kids, never feeling like formal schooling was right for me, which is how I came to choose the path of education through nature, exploring its laws and order. This is also why I so enjoy connecting these young people to the meaning of the great circle of water. I am thankful for all that water provides us, and treat it with respect, every sip I take, every note I hear of the harmony that the river plays as it flows by me 24 hours a day.

My other ritual I want to share with them is the fire I make every morning as I appreciate the sunrise. From the campsite, the sun rises across the river. The metal campfire ring serves as a kind of instrument that allows me to mark the movement of the sun. It rises noticeably further to the south as the summer days go by, so that if I were to notch a mark, it would form a kind of sundial. I was talking about this with Kenji, and we marveled at how we were performing a microcosm of enormous human tributes to the sun, such as the Mayan pyramids of Chitzen Iza and Stonehenge. Between the changes in the arc of the sun and the flow of the water, we have a clock of nature that teaches us valuable lessons. We have to listen for those lessons, with awe.

Up in Tuolumne, I get to go visit old climbs and boulders, and I never tire of them. I might even say that the more familiar I become, the more I appreciate not only the beauty of the area but the continuing education that it brings. Each climb makes my body adjust differently, influences my breathing, shifts my psyche in a unique way. These are the new dimensions of climbing to me. Because the season in Tuolumne is so short, I appreciate these meditative moments even more.

From all these seasons and opportunities to move into some kind of harmony with the place, I see the parallels with our explorations with Sacred Rok on the philosophical plane, something that I hope to share with you in the coming months. I will not be getting these kids into climbing for a while yet, but I look forward to getting our natural curriculum to them through walk, talk, and time.