I am following a sage into the wilderness.
The thought that I’ve found an enlightened, reincarnated John Muir enters my mind after covering less than a mile of a planned 40-mile hike along the San Joaquin River Trail with Rangasamy “Sekaran” Gnanasekaran.
I’m here to try and understand how, and why, this 68-year-old Fresno man does weekly 30- to 40-plus-mile day hikes – his longest a 62-mile push in the High Sierra earlier this year.
I expect his strength and speed, but his Muir-esque aura is a delightful surprise when we meet at a trailhead above Table Mountain Casino near Friant on Black Friday – literally. It’s 5:30 a.m., the sky still dotted with stars.
Beside an old Toyota Camry, I find a slight fellow with a long gray grizzly beard, who was once blessed with the nickname “rattling bones” growing up in a small village in India. His wild beard is overshadowed by a kind, healthy face. It seems to exist beneath his epic whiskers like the sun emerging from a cloud.
One of Gnanasekaran’s hiking boots, purchased for $19 at Walmart, is busted open around the toes and his backpack is ripped in several places, its zippers looking like frail ribs, barely able to support the heavy load.
But this is no poor man. Gnanasekaran is a retired Fresno State associate professor of electrical and computer engineering who chooses not to own a cellphone and likes his ragged hiking equipment.
As I tag along – always behind, no matter how fast I move my legs – I wonder if I’m actually following a 20-year-old boy. His gait is effortless, a skip in his step, jogging here and there up some of the slopes.
Most impressive, there is a compassionate contentment that hangs in all of his words. Twenty minutes into our day-long hike and Gnanasekaran has already shared enough positive insights to fill an inspirational quote book.
He talks about mankind: “I tell people, we are all of the same family, of the same color and of the same creed. To deny that is ignorance. To believe it is faith. To know it is knowledge, but to have experience is divine.”
Living a balanced, harmonious life: “Anything overly done is poison. … Like a blade of the fan, when all three turn in unison in the same direction properly, then we get the air. If one starts in the other direction, then it doesn’t work.”
Capitalism: “I’m into profit, but my profit definition is: Anyone who comes to me, I want to maximize their profit, not mine. Maximize their profit, yours will automatically be taken care of. Don’t worry about yours. So I’m that kind of capitalist.”
Growth: “Use your strengths that are easier for you to assist and improve in your weaknesses. Don’t pamper the weakness. If you do, you’ll never get out of it.”
And something I already recognize as foreshadowing: “Everything has limits. You have to keep that in mind when you do things. You know, sometimes we don’t know what the limit is. That’s when we have to exercise caution.”
‘Do you know how long 40 miles is?’
Gnanasekaran and my parents both warned me, several times, about why trying to hike 40 miles might be a bad idea. I’ve only ever hiked around 15 miles in one push.
I originally planned to do a portion of Gnanasekaran’s weekly stroll, but then a new plan entered my mind: “Oh wait, silly, you’ve got to do the whole thing!”
My dad tries to talk some sense into me, no easy endeavor.
“Do you know how long 40 miles is?” he asks, concerned.
“Uh, I dunno, a long way.”
“Imagine walking out the front door (I live in Coarsegold) and walking to Fresno.”
“Oh shit!” I say, giggling and amused with my dumb plan. Now I definitely have to do this. How can I pass up the chance to see how it feels to walk the distance I drive – twice – every weekday? And this is in the service of a story, after all, the noblest cause I can sacrifice myself for.
Unlike me, Gnanasekaran is prepared for this day-long walk. He’s been gradually increasing his mileage since he started hiking in 2006. He started after he spotted a blurb for a local hiking club in a Sierra Club newsletter, but in reality, he’s been hiking far longer, since he was a boy in India. He lived in a farming village where cars were so rare a sight that he liked to sleep on a cot in the middle of the road, gazing at the moon. He walked everywhere.
Decades later, he decides to try “hiking” for the first time. He loves wilderness and is curious to learn what hiking is all about.
But his first 12-mile excursion with the hiking club was painful. They climbed three peaks in the Kaiser Wilderness. Watching the fleet-footed hikers, he vowed he’d be like them one day. And he made it. As he kept excelling, he started hiking longer distances than his friends wanted to go, so he started going alone.
In June, he reached a new personal best: a 62-mile day hike from Yosemite Valley to Isberg Pass. He says it’s still not his limit.
His friends nicknamed him “crazy hiker” and “crazy holy man.”
Gnanasekaran’s long hikes are about pushing himself. As a boy, this determination helped him excel in school without ever owning a book. He went on to earn his doctorate at the University of California, Davis. He’s not interested in competition, he says, but he has a drive to “go to the top.”
‘You are the reason for yourself’
His passion for hiking is also about health.
“I tell people often, ‘If you love your children, you take care of your health.’ When you get old, you don’t want your children to suffer because of you.”
He does at least an hour of yoga every day – a routine that includes a headstand – and maintains unusual eating habits. The day before a long hike, the vegetarian drinks only warm milk with spices to stay light. He has the milk again the morning before, along with warm water soaked in lime or lemon.
Otherwise, he eats one meal a day, usually some vegetables in a potato or rice base. He says he feels healthy. He’s careful to choose ingredients that are high in nutritional value, avoids white sugars, and cooks all of his own food. The way he sees it, the more food in his body, the more toxins to deal with.
During our hike he drinks a fair amount of water but eats sparingly: two tomatoes, a dried date, a small dried Chinese apple, a bite of potato curry and an Indian rice pancake, coconut water, a few pieces of my Chex mix, and an avocado – seed and all.
He doesn’t like to waste and doesn’t see the point in accumulating more than he needs – why he’s still happy to hike in broken boots.
“A lot of times we have excessive desire. Reduce them. … Then you are happy. Now that is independence, freedom from external stuff. No one can control you. No one can come and hold you hostage.”
His hiking power, perhaps most of all, also comes from how he digests the world. He’s a master of mind over matter, but he’s not reckless.
He chooses to see things positively, drawing good nutrients from experiences, he says, instead of being disturbed, which sucks up the bad.
John Prigge of Clovis, whom Gnanasekaran calls one of his “hiking professors,” helps describe his friend.
“He treats everybody like they are brothers and sisters, he tells me that all the time. He doesn’t get angry at people. He just accepts people for the way they are.”
It’s not that Gnanasekaran doesn’t have things to complain about, if he wanted to. He’s divorced and, except for two children, has no other family in the United States. But he’s not lonely, he says, not at all, and every day is a great day.
“Life is always beautiful, always enjoyable. You can always be happy. No one is the reason for your happiness or your happiness being destroyed. You are the reason for yourself. If you’re not happy, take that responsibility, do the right thing, and you can enjoy your life to the fullest, as it’s meant to be. You deserve to have that. … Your health is in your hands.”
He talks often of spirituality along the trail. He respects all religions. He sees religion as kindergarten classrooms that help teach alphabets about God.
He describes his own spirituality two ways: “I have no religion, or you can look at it as I belong to all the religions … with the philosophy that we are all connected to the same God.”
Buddha and Jesus are two of his greatest role models. He tells me the story of Buddha, how the prince deserted his palace for a life of wandering the wilderness in search of an answer to why people suffer.
Gnanasekaran is a regular on the San Joaquin River Trail and I see he has some admirers, including three men on mountain bikes who stop to chat.
“You want to engage him in conversation because he’s always got something to say that you think about, you know?” George Argain says. “It’s not just conversation, it goes deeper.”
Perched on a bike beside him, Mitch Dunshee adds, “It’ll percolate for a few days.”
‘Don’t pamper the weakness’
Gnanasekaran and I have walked 16 miles so far, and I’m definitely feeling some percolation. I bask in his positivity as miles fly by along the beautiful San Joaquin River, surrounded by table-top mountains and oak-studded hills.
Our going has been slower than he’s used to – we’ve stopped often to talk, and I’m not as quick – so by mid-afternoon, we decide against adding an 8-mile loop that would make our hike 40 miles. I’m sore, but tell him I can make the 16 miles back to where we started.
Some 5 miles later, it’s dark again. I’m really sore now. In another 5 miles, the soreness becomes obvious pain. It grows sharper and starts shifting around my legs, finally focusing on my left knee. With several miles left, it feels like I’ve been stabbed with a knife.
I expected to be really sore, but I didn’t know my legs would start to break. It bothers me that I’ve let my muscles get so weak and that I was foolish enough to think stamina could cover for aching joints.
I’m wincing inside with every step now, but trying not to let it show. Gnanasekaran kindly suggests we take some breaks, but I want to keep going.
I think of some wisdom Gnanasekaran shared earlier in the day: “Don’t pamper the weakness.”
I try to keep my body relaxed and think of something positive. A young man I’ve been missing for years comes to my mind and I feel instantly better.
I contemplate this later as I digest the experience of suffering. My revelations are far from Buddha-esque, but I draw a couple of conclusions.
One: Pain can help us sort out the essential from the non-essential. It reminds us of what is truly comforting and nurturing in our lives. We see the givers, not the takers.
Two: Pain is embarrassing. It shows us our weaknesses – our wounded knees – but it also helps us grow.
I think of more Gnanasekaran wisdom: Your limits of today don’t have to be limits of tomorrow.
As we continue to walk, the moon rises and we stop for a few moments to admire its beauty. Gnanasekaran says there are lots of Indian songs about this glowing sphere.
Then, as I’m hobbling along, he does something really beautiful. He starts to sing.
He doesn’t know it, but my eyes fill up with tears. This gesture means so much, that he’s trying to make me feel better. Every word is a lullaby.
The lyrics of one of these cheerful songs catches my special attention: “We who have hearts have a day called tomorrow. We shall definitely live.”
I’m beaming now, smiling so big.
“So, that’s one of my hobbies: cheerfulness,” he says between two songs, totally matter-of-fact.
“That’s a good hobby to have.”
We giggle together in the moonlight, and the pain fades away.