Seeing It Through

4:30am is too early even for me. It’s an hour I reserve for (sleep! but occasionally) setting off on very long drives, or taking family to the airport. Once up, I’m not going back to bed. No one else is up yet, either; best to turn the hour into a feature. One morning last August, I dropped my mother at the Portland airport, then drove out Highway 14 to catch the sunrise from Cape Horn.

Dawnbreak from this popular Columbia Gorge viewpoint is almost cosmically grand and quiet. Every day is the First Day from a vantage like that. Forested cliffs still blue with night, the great silent silvery Columbia molten beneath a kindling horizon, just-born blue sky still a long way up.

A vista point so inspiring ought to have a trail to match. I’ve thought so plenty of times, in an incurious sort of way, driving east down the Washington side of the Gorge and making a point to pull over. The view, any time, is nothing short of epic.

See? Epic.

Fortunately for lazy hikers like me, there are those who do more than wish: they envision. They raise funds, they make contacts, and they get their hands dirty, too: planting trees, maintaining trails, hauling away garbage. I’m impressed by their ethic of stewardship. I imagine them as purposefully tithing: giving their time – or labor, or money – in support of this place and this activity that in turn supports their souls.

If the accuracy of my semi-religious musing is in doubt, here’s what I do know: we have The Cape Horn Conservancy, Washington Trails Association, and Friends of the Columbia River Gorge to thank for the recently constructed Cape Horn Trail.


Lots of love went into this trail.I’ve been looking forward to this hike for weeks. Often I choose a morning’s destination the night before, but since I learned of its existence, this one has been scheduled. A month past the solstice, it’s dark when my alarm chirps at 6, but the temptation to sleep in is brief. At least it’s not 4:30.

It’s early enough to make me forget my boots, though. I take two pairs of shoes on most hikes: Chaco sandals for the drive, boots for the walk. In a pinch, I can hike in my Chacos, but open toes are not ideal for rocky terrain. Today I bless my emergency shoes: a beat-up old pair of the “city boots” I wear almost daily, stored in the car just in case. They’re still waterproof and warm, but their tread’s worn almost flat. Pulling them on, I think about the recent rain and the 1300 foot elevation gain (& loss) ahead, and for a moment I’m my dad, wary of lacking the right tool for the job.  But I can live with this one: grippy hiking poles will help on slippery surfaces, moleskin defeats emerging blisters, and I’ll pack the Chacos for backup. Dad again: prepare for everything, set your course, see it through. Well, at least I can do the last two.

The forest this morning is close and humid. Yellow and brown leaves hang limp from their branches and drape themselves across the path. There’s no breeze at all, odd in this wind-tunnel of a Gorge. (When one comes up later, it’s a blessed event, celebrated with weary smiles and a Gatorade toast.)October forests are pretty - also a big damn mess.

It’s a steady climb for the first mile, through early birdsong I can’t identify. Supportive of my newfound interest in local birds, Jeremiah keeps asking “what’s that one?” and I have to keep saying “I don’t know” because I can’t see them. Learning the visual and auditory identifications of birds is like learning to speak and then read a human language. When you can do both, the connections are obvious, but first you must struggle with two approaches that have, at base, nothing to do with each other.

The Cape Horn Trail traverses protected habitat for a bird I can identify by sound: the peregrine falcon. There’s a year-round pair living on the cliffs here, plus some seasonal sojourners. October is not breeding season, so it’s just the locals now, and I’m keen to spot one. Emerging from forest at the first, rather sudden overlook, I’m still absorbing the panorama when my quarry spots me first. She floats up from below and suspends her beautiful gray and yellow body not twenty feet away. She’s perfectly still but obviously in motion – muscles shifting, feathers ruffling slightly. Her single eye in profile is assertive, commanding, dismissive. I feel, acutely, like an intruder. She ends the moment by pulling her wings in and stooping, dropping away down the cliff. Perhaps she wasn’t looking at us at all, merely searching for breakfast below.

Miles later and far down the mountain, we find a burst of avian fluff among the leaves: grey flight feathers and piles of pristine white down. A near escape? Or breakfast.


The Cape Horn Trail is best understood in sections. Its character changes often; it lacks continuity. And in fact, it does seem to be a series of separate paths, joined by the vision of the trail builders into rather a grand mountain loop.

The grandeur is in the scope of the project, the variety of terrain, the sweeping views. I confess myself defeated by that middle aspect. I love country road-walking, mellow switchbacked climbs, a good prospect from a mountain ledge. I hate long steep descents, endless sharp talus, and tiny twisted paths that can’t decide if they’re going up or down. This isn’t usually what I mean when I say “this hike has it all.”

The best kind of trail: flat

We’re following Paul Gerald’s 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles, in which he describes my least favorite section as The Stones of Tedium. I often find that guidebooks only make sense once you’ve already been there, but this bit I recognize immediately. The Stones – bloody talus – do seem to go on forever. They’re painful to walk on, and slow: every footfall requires extra care and balance. My emergency boots are not equal to the task. It starts raining, so now the Stones are slick, too. I’ve been getting over a cold, but now I imagine I feel it returning.

I start giving melodramatic names to other features in this blasted lower section. Twisted Pass is a smaller, greener Cirith Ungol, needlessly treacherous. The Bridge of False Hope does not, in fact, mark the end of the Stones. I feel a kinship with Captain Vancouver, who gave so many morose names to Pacific Northwest landmarks.

pinnacles of achievement?

The rain picks up, too loud for conversation, so Jeremiah doesn’t hear it when I switch – with what feels like enormous effort – to Stoic philosophy. This is fine: he’s a natural Stoic, so when I bring up my struggles to practice this much-misunderstood habit of mind, he’s politely nonplussed. How else would one get through life?

Life, to a Stoic, is not good because everything is perfect, it is good because you approach it with tranquillity. Tranquillity is receiving with joy all the good things your life can offer, and accepting without anger that all of it is transitory. One aspect feeds the the other: contemplate loss to fully appreciate what you have; count your blessings so that you will look back on them with pleasure when they are gone. You can practice on the small stuff, but the goal is to take this approach every day, to think of your home, your money, parents, children, vacation time, friends, partner as both precious and ephemeral. (Now you begin to see why there aren’t many Stoics in what we think of as ‘the modern world.’)

I like weedsThe attitude this is supposed to cultivate allows a person to weather life’s boredoms and disappointments and griefs without breaking. A good Stoic is content whatever her situation, because there is always something to take pleasure in, and always change ahead. It worked for some long-dead Roman philosophers; also my husband. And although I have yet to ask him directly, I suspect my prepared and practical father of a similar mental discipline. I, oppositely, am pretty handy at looking calm and content, less good at feeling it. I harbor feelings strong as ocean swells about the people, the places, the moments I love and hate in life. It’s exhausting, and I’m willing to try an ancient philosophy to redress the balance.

So I’m making lists in my head right now. I am warm, and my two strong legs are carrying me over challenging landscape to somewhere I’ve never been. I’m keeping company with a person I love. It is raining, and – finally! – a cool breeze slides like a second, invisible river along the rubbly cliffs.

Alien life form?

I’m looking closely around me, too, when I can spare a glance from navigating the Stones. The busy mess of the forest floor reveals ripe puffballs, delicately spotted oak galls, and burgundy-backed beetles intent on business of their own. Though it’s densely forested here, every so often the woods sheer suddenly away on the right. In those moments, the shocking scale of the Gorge allows for no other thought. I crouch well back from the cliff edge, peering across at giant rock pinnacles, littered at their base with columnar stone debris. Rippled sandbars in the wide calm reach of river. Curling crests of fog, breaking low on the Washington shore. October gold climbing Oregon’s cliffs.

breaker breaker

There’s a pleasure in controlling my feelings, as much as indulging them. Walking the Stones right now, I am not having fun, exactly, but I’m having an experience. Gratitude for that, or not, is my choice. To know that I can dial in my own well-being this way is a daily act that’s full of power.


Sometimes the power escapes me, and I’m just full of shit. I can get through difficult hours with a whole lot of list-making and talking down the swamping waves of emotion, but there’s always a breaking point, where it starts to feel like a sham. I’m pretty sure this means I’m doing it wrong. The spirit is willing, but there’s that other pesky half of the verse to reckon with.

By now, my head is pounding. I zip my mouth shut: if I let my voice out, it’s going to whine. It’s hard work to find joy after hours of frustrating walking on this moody, hard-to-love trail. I can’t do it anymore. I can put one foot in front of the other, but that’s not Stoicism, it’s just stubbornness. Not a life philosophy, but certainly more my style.


Deep in the Stones, the birds have gone eerily quiet. It’s long past noon, the day drooping. We’re a long way, in every sense, from our enthusiastic start.

I stop, drained, and open my mouth anyway. And then, instead: the silent, spiraling fall of a spent acer macrophyllum leaf. The brown giant takes three seconds to touch ground in the leaf-choked ravine, but it feels like a momentous occasion, filmed by my brain with slow-motion drama. Nothing I’m about to say can do anything but diminish it.

Except this. I change course, and wait for Jeremiah’s gaze to light on mine, sun on water. I say: “I love you.”

paradise on the edge of the cliffs
The Cape Horn Trail is accessed off Highway 14 in Washington, a couple of miles after the Cape Horn viewpoint. Coming from Vancouver, make a left on Salmon Falls Road, and you’ll see the parking lot almost immediately on your right. There’s no access fee. The whole loop is about 7 miles, with a lot of elevation change, or you can choose to walk just the upper or lower sections. The middle part of the trail is closed from February – July to protect Peregrine Falcon breeding habitat, so you may have to pick a direction. I recommend the upper section, as far as the Nancy Russell Viewpoint. After that, it’s a lot of Tedious Stones. 

Deception Pass

One hundred seventy square miles must be quite enough space to encourage regional division. I usually think of smallish islands as single entities, and only parcel out big places like California into compass-based sections. But clearly I have been mistaken. Businesses on Whidbey Island, Washington proudly label themselves as belonging to North, South, or Central. South Whidbey Self Storage, Central Whidbey Lions Club, North Whidbey RV Park.

Maybe it’s the quick-change climates that encourage this semi-official split. Driving the 50 or so miles from one end to the other, it’s a struggle to keep your eyes on the road, since all around the scenery is shifting from one form of beauty to another. South Whidbey is lushly forested. Central lies in the middle of the rain shadow cast by the Olympic Mountains. North begins dramatically where Highway 20 plunges into a tall, dark, and handsome rainforest.

And that last boundary coincides, more or less, with Deception Pass State Park – a road trip destination full of rewards for the explorer.


On my first visit, the main objective was to cross the Deception Pass Bridge on foot. Right away, I found out it’s sectioned, too, for Deception has a twin pass: the equally intense but much more innocuously-named Canoe. (Tricky, right from the start.) Both sections are famously high and famously narrow, with famously excellent views.

Famously Beautiful View

The name comes from British Captain George Vancouver’s mistaken belief, when he and his crew were mapping the area in the late 18th century, that Whidbey Island was in fact connected to the mainland. The Coast Salish people already living and sailing there had no such misperceptions, but he didn’t ask them. Instead he sent Joseph Whidbey out on a couple of different explorations in small boats, which first confused and then cleared the matter up. Whidbey then got to write his name on the map, while Captain Van took his revenge on the lying coastline in similar fashion.

(Jonathan Raban, in at least one of his brilliant essays – I forget which – advances the argument that Vancouver’s colorful naming of Northwest landmarks reflects a mood disorder, or at the very least a profound distrust of the Romantic enthusiasm for Nature that had begun to infect the European public in his time.)

From the air, there’s nothing particularly misleading about it. Deception Pass is a straightforwardly terrifying 180 feet of inexorable gravity. At the terminus: jade green water that swirls like melting glass – only frighteningly fast. My visits have been on calm days, but I think the waters here are never still or easy. Sea lions, cavorting in the turbulent flow, don’t seem to mind, but I am not keen to leave the safety of land. Still, standing on the slender span above, there’s that slight compulsion toward the drop, stomach-wrenching and exhilarating at once.

Tip A Canoe Pass

Any time after about 9am, lines of the brave and curious pass each other on the bridge’s 3-foot sidewalk. They’re striding or shuffling, according to their comfort level, and all of them are snapping pictures with their perilously balanced devices.

You have little choice, so pretend it’s your idea: lean away from them, hips on the guardrail and face to the ocean wind. Literally pushing the edge.


The close-pressed rainforest on either side of the bridge keeps its secrets well, but venture off the road. There’s more to Washington’s most-visited state park. Namely: old-growth forest, tiny moody bays, abundant birdlife, ridiculously scenic beaches. All of these are connected by quiet hiking trails, with views just as memorable as that from the famous bridge.


The time to visit the beach on the Whidbey side is early morning. Park in the very big lot (you’ll have your pick of spots, for now), and walk out where the shoreline shifts its face from north to east. Listen: on a calm day, the waves are bell-clear and tiny. They’re like a tame version of faeries, dancing in to chime a polite rhythm on this pebbly point of land. Enticing, climbing-sized rocks rise above them, close enough to dare, but don’t – the shore drops quickly toward the deep.

Or choose one of the twisting forest trails instead. They’re on both sides of the Park, sometimes clearly marked with a parking lot to match, sometimes vaguely signed and leaving from the highway shoulder. A key benefit to this choice is the abundance of one of my favorite plants: salal.


Salal fruits aren’t sugar-sweet like we expect from our cultivated berries. Their flavor is mild and pleasant, sweet in the modest way of a wild thing. They grow generously from beautiful evergreen shrubs that carpet the forest – so lovely and so hardy that their main economic value today lies in their leaves, popular in commercial floral arrangements. The berries are a bit hirsute, and eventually I always give up, sucking the juice and spitting the skins back at their parent plants. If it’s too early or too late for berries, take your joy in the small white flowers, or those distinctive glossy leaves, alternating on confident red stems.

The forest embraces, and offers a hundred gifts. But I’m too often landlocked, and here I can smell the salt. I seek the sea through the trees.

It’s not a difficult quest: cedar-fringed pocket coves appear around corners with a regularity that practically writes the word ‘paradise’ in the sand. Islands bloom from the fog, purple with distance across steel-colored straits; bull-kelp streams in the fast-flowing passes.IMG_20150906_103409

I expect to feel calm and focused in a wild place, but I often get distracted. Today I’m wondering if these massive seaweeds have some species memory of the otters that thrived here once. I picture these ocean-going weasels – it’s not an insult, the whole family is lovely – wrapping themselves in strands of kelp while they sleep. Sea otters today are a rare sight in Puget Sound, though a few have re-entered the area after heavy fur-trapping nearly wiped them out a century back.

Whales, on the other hand, are supposed to be common. I’ve never yet seen one here. The dominant large(ish) life-form on each of my visits has been the Great Blue Heron, avian mascot of my own home town.

I think of these stately, intense birds as solitary, but there are dozens here on any given day, fishing in the mudflat shallows of the bays. Against the wave-lapped quiet of the morning, one of them pushes off from her high perch with a labored sweep of wing and that echoing primeval “crrronnnk!” An arrested moment follows, in which my husband cannot shift his gaze or comment, though I can see he wants to share it with me. Finally, still watching her flight, he manages: “Dinosaurs are awesome.”


A camera – well, my camera – cannot quite capture this place. Spangles of water catch on drapes of usnea lichen, but there’s not enough light for the lens to translate their shine, and I cannot angle the shot to show the spaces between. I can see the heaviness of rain stored in the massive trees, but my machine cannot. Gray fog, drifting below gray cloud banks over the gray sea, is three colors and textures to my infinitely complex eye, but one great blur to my limited camera’s aperture.

The hardest thing to freeze is the slick green glide of tide on eddy through the narrows. It’s lethally beautiful, ready to drown the body even as it draws the spirit. Captain Vancouver felt misled, however briefly, but I am compelled. Here is my siren song, no murderous mermaids required. I’m staying firmly on land, but I am hooked.


Deception Pass State Park covers parts of Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands, as well as tiny Pass Island between. There are numerous trails, some of them quite short and manageable as a quick break from driving. Most of the trails here should not be considered easy, though: tricky footing on roots and rocks is common, and some paths are very steep.

Access the park from State Highway 20, south of Anacortes, Washington, about a 30-minute drive west from Interstate 5. There is a fee to leave your car inside the boundaries, including either side of the Deception Pass Bridge. Buy a Discover Pass online (as of this writing, it’s $10/day or $30/year), or at the automated kiosk in the parking lot on the Whidbey side of the bridge. If you’re continuing south down the island, you’ll be able to use your pass at several other scenic State Parks.

Beautiful Secret Mess: South Whidbey State Park

CLOSED FOR THE SEASON. A metal gate bars access to the campground at South Whidbey State Park. It’s not so far off the high summer season, and the weather holds fine; I suspect budget cuts. The park’s main car lot is still open – and still requires my Discover Pass – but there is no evidence of recent human presence.

The lot is not very promising: crumbling at the edges, strewn with moss and small pieces of tree. Some of the biggest bigleaf maples I’ve seen are pressing in close on all sides, glowering or devouring, I’m not sure. Supposedly, several trails traverse this park. I’m uncertain I wish to stay long enough to search them out, so I choose the trailhead right next to the car. We’ll give it fifteen minutes, I think, which is the rule Jeremiah and I observe with new films.

Dinosaur trail

I might have chosen this trail anyway; it’s the one that goes to the beach. A partial Bay Area childhood and ten years lived in close proximity to the Santa Barbara coast have left me with a permanent longing for the curl of sea on shore. Portland is a wonderful place to wash up, but you do that from the Columbia or Willamette Rivers. Sea lions swim up to our fine port sometimes, but they do not bring the ocean along. When I travel, I seek out salt air.

The path leads down a canyon down a bluff, but it’s only half a mile and not very steep. We’re down in fifteen minutes, easy.

The maples continue to dominate, crowding out everything else and casually displaying prehistorically large leaves. Macrophyllum, indeed. The sun is rising fast on the eastern side of Whidbey Island, but here in the west we are deep in the pre-dawn still. It can’t have rained in days, but no one told that to the mud slicks, cannily hidden in the shadows.

Leaves Of Unusual Size

The last bit of bluff is negotiated via a steep set of slick wooden stairs. We come on them suddenly, and then stand there a while, cocking our heads to the side, glancing at each other. Somebody says it first.

“Are those…?”

“…Tilted? Yeah.”  

They’re actually sort of twisted, and significantly tilted, so that if we walk on them, we’ll be at an unusual angle to both ground and slope. It’s like a piece escaped from a Hogwarts-themed funhouse, and we can’t decide if it’s real. I get out the camera to check – you know how it shows what you “really” look like in that dress you’re thinking about buying? It can’t see the tilt, but when we touch the first board, we feel it. Pretty good illusion.

The beach itself is sublime. I admit this is mostly because we are the only people on it. There is something about an early morning stretch of sand that feels secret. Especially one this size: it’s maybe 30 feet from pebbly waveline to thick forest growth. We spend an hour or more walking it, and in that time, the quiet tide advances. On the return journey, our messy little shore has shrunk.


This is the other feature of this beach that I love. Such a small space, filled with so much of interest, is bound to feel a little bit cluttered. It’s like the home of a friend long on wonder and short on housekeeping. (Shall I tell you which of those I value more?)

There are stippled pieces of seaweed, striped in red and white, like the tatters of a Viking sail. There’s a dead fish, consumed down to its tiny perfect skeleton by small hopping insects that still swarm in yellow crowds over the vertebrae. There are small exquisite stones everywhere: cedar green and ochre and quartz that glints like opal. Some lie encrusted with barnacles, many more bear the curious white traceries of former barnacle habitation. Some sport clusters of what look like roots: failed holdfasts, still gripping their anchor though their stalks float helpless in the open sea.

Sticks and stones

A single kingfisher is the loudest thing down here. He keeps flying in a semi-circle over our heads, chattering like that old red Audubon bird call twisted round and around, very fast. A solitary osprey doesn’t fish, though she talks about it from the branches of the biggest alder I have ever seen. The alders I know reach a slim maturity of 100, maybe 150 years. This one must be twice that. Her smooth gray limbs twist heavily and droop sandward.


The drone of an engine in this well-trafficked channel isn’t abnormal, but this one is early, insistent. And invasive. It echoes off the forested bluff. It turns out to belong to the Victoria Clipper out of Seattle. Its wake takes long moments to reach us; by the time it arrives, the ship itself has faded into the Strait, and we’re alone again with the soft wash of baby waves. The time-delayed wake reaches further than most, running musically onto the rocks as up a scale.

I am used to the crashing percussion of the Oregon coast, and the operatic breakers that rip the sand from Southern California beaches in winter. All the waves in Puget Sound seem sweet to me by comparison. Their music on a calm day is delicate, pianissimo. Insistent, unceasing, as waves ever are, but these understand the power of lowering your voice to command attention.

music everywhere


The secret hours of morning only last so long. Soon, there are others on the beach, just a few, and we are traipsing back with the rising tide. The funhouse stairs are occupied by a mother and her small, unwilling son. She talks him through the tilt, but he glances back reproachfully from the safety of the sand. I see what you did there, steps.

We climb the return trail quickly; I have a mission today, and this is not it. This park was a distraction, semi-randomly spotted from the road. I’ve enjoyed it fully, and now I’m moving on, back to the real itinerary.

At the head of the path, though, in sight of the car, I turn back. The place is still a mess, the risen sun has done nothing to decrease the maples’ hungry glare. I’m wise to them now, though. Distraction has opened an unseen path. Not every place reveals itself just because you show up: impress me. This one wanted its fifteen minutes first: a little risk of time wasted, plus a little scrambling in the mud.

And now I know the secret.


South Whidbey State Park is accessed from Smugglers Cove Road, a few miles off the main highway that runs down Whidbey Island. That highway is called 20 in the north, 525 in the south. The park is technically contained by the municipality of Freeland, WA. You can buy your Discover Pass (good at all Washington State Parks) at the automated kiosk installed in the main parking lot.

Mitchell Point: Second Honeymoon


“Look out on your right!”

In any group of walkers on a narrow trail, it’s the job of the first in line to call out hazards. Hazards in the western Columbia River Gorge are things like loose rocks, slippery mud patches, and spiky brambles. And poison oak, which is what I’m calling out now. This specific representative of the species is tiny, a half-foot-high handful of finely drawn three-leaf clusters. Easy to miss, but a careless brush from boot to skin could produce an itchy, weepy rash in a couple of days.

Toxicodendron diversilobum is a master of camouflage, the floral chameleon of the American West. It comes in many hues and several confusing leaf-shapes. It can rise to encircle all 150 feet of a Douglas fir trunk, or it can crouch invisibly in the grass creeping onto your trail, waiting to strike an exposed ankle.

Placing my body carefully, I kneel on the uneven surface for a closer look. It’s that time of year when a long summer teeters on the edge of winter –  most of my acquaintance calls this “fall” – and the area’s deciduous trees have just started to turn interesting colors. Poison oak, though, is far advanced towards the warmer end of the spectrum, and this tiny specimen flourishes brilliant scarlet flags. My husband, patient as always, is happy to pause our ascent, though he eyes the offensive plant distrustfully.

You all know my husband by now from previous adventures, so this time I’m going to introduce you properly. Reader, meet Jeremiah. Jeremiah enjoys the out-of-doors the way I would enjoy taking an advanced cooking class: This is beautiful and interesting and thank goodness there is someone here to make sure I don’t die.

JRCSmitchellpointTKSI tend to lead on our hikes because I enjoy the modest challenge, and he enjoys a less stressful interaction with the natural world. He’s actually quite good at spotting poison oak: I taught him leaves of three, let it be within months of our first date. But just in case, he’s gone the old rhyme one better:

Touch nothing outside, your skin defend/ That’s how nature stays your friend.

I’m rising to my feet when my pack snags on a hazelnut branch. The rock I use to catch my balance slips and so do I, jabbing my knee into a sharp corner of stone. I say something unprintable, and Jeremiah affects a friendly 1990’s PSA voice, accompanied by a winning smile: “Remember kids, Nature Hurts!”


We’ve just hauled ourselves up a set of steep forested switchbacks. They’re short, and I’m expecting more, but instead, the intense grade flattens out and I’m standing at the edge of an exposed talus slope: basically just a slidey pile of rocks. I pick out the path and step forward, stone shifting underfoot. Behind me I hear Jeremiah hesitate. “Are you sure?”

I am sure, but at his tone – habitual calm over specific anxiety – I triple check. The slope of tumbled rock debris in front of us slants somewhere barely below the angle of repose; as long as we’re careful to stay on a traverse (and, always, as long as we’re lucky), it’s not going anywhere. There’s the faintest of trails across it: a slightly flattened part of the pile, where human tread has left a vague discoloration on the stone.


Slopes like this are dangerous, and he’s right to approach gingerly. I remember being young enough to learn this from watching my father on a backpacking trip, and still young enough, later, to ignore his teaching and strike out indiscriminately on the shortest path. I’m strong; I can climb that! The very small rock slide that resulted only bruised my shins and hands a little, but it left a deeply impressed memory.

I hope, before that lesson, I didn’t do what other hikers have done here, which is cut vertical side-trails between the traverses, shortening the route so it’s straight up the talus. Though I suspect I did other things just as unsafe and impolite. Living through stupid decisions – and spending a lot of time walking with people who actually know something – has left me in a lofty place of imagined wisdom. So far.


It’s a bluebird “fall” day at the top of Mitchell Point. Although it’s a Saturday, we’re alone at the crest of our world.

I walk as far out as I dare on this spine of rock protruding above the Columbia. With both poles planted, I’m bold enough to stand above the edge, looking a very long way straight down. A hawk soars below me, early sun red on her barred tail. On the western slopes, the sun is halfway down the dougs: tops gilded, trunks still deep in shadow. I wonder how long I can do this without fear, and immediately my perch feels unsteady. I back up slowly, and ease into a small cup of stone. The view is just as good seated. I stop showing off and start looking for landmarks.

I always seem to type it "Mt. Definance."

West, I pick out Mt. Defiance. It’s not impressive from anywhere, but it’s the highest point in the Gorge, and when you hike the eponymous trail, you gain every one of those nearly 5,000 feet from sea level. The summit view is as fine as you imagine, with a sense of accomplishment to match.

This spot right here on Mitchell Point is the closest I will ever come again to the top of Defiance. I say this, but that nondescript peak tempts me. Pushing up that hill feels amazing. It’s the descent that strikes fear and trembling into my knees. I’ve hiked it twice, training to ascend Mt. Hood. Let’s just say Hood was easier.

It's really that steep

Mitchell Point isn’t easy, but it’s a manageably short climb: a mile or so each way. And the view from 1200 feet is not so shabby. I can’t see the full glory of Mt. Hood from here, but the snowy tip of Adams (finally! some snow!) peaks over the northern Gorge rim. You don’t even need him, though: look at the river!

I’m physically unable to take it all in at once, which is maybe why I keep taking pictures. They break a place down into components; I can use them to make sense of it later. I look around, grope for words, give up and snap another picture. I could do this all day. I turn to share the view with Jeremiah and find him equally engaged with his mobile, processing the grandeur in his own preferred way. Turns out there’s internet up here.


We came to the world-famous Columbia River Gorge for the first time on our honeymoon. We visited the usual places – Multnomah Falls is the top attraction, a must-stop – but we also did a lot of pulling randomly off the road, bowled over by the stunning beauty of the land. One of our unplanned stops was Mitchell Point.

At the time, I didn’t know you could hike it. I didn’t know anything, in fact, about the wealth of trails that access this region. But there’s a small overlook set above highway 84, with a historical sign and a picnic bench and fine views over the river. You can stand there contentedly, knowing nothing else, and crane your neck up at the bulk of the mountain behind you and think I wonder what’s up there?
Ancient history

(You can get back in the car without checking it out, because you’re wearing a lacy skirt and a white shirt and completely impractical shoes, and the Gorge wind is having a field day with your untied hair. You haven’t moved here yet, you see, but you’ll adjust to Oregon ways soon enough.)

I’m back today for the first time in all the intervening years, trying to take a picture in the same spot because the contrast intrigues me. I remember being that person, but when I look at her, I can’t access the feeling. She was twenty-one, for god’s sake. She’d never played a board game she liked. She hiked about twice a year. How can she be me?

Growing up is a mystery I can’t unravel, in spite of my long history of doing it. I can look backward and forward at the process with interest and gratitude. Eleven years ago, and again today, two different women who are somehow the same experienced wonder, love, and companionship in this exact place. The second time around, all of those have more depth and texture.

Life is change, and better or worse aren’t predictable. But it does get deeper, if you’re paying attention. Hike your trails twice. Look around, and stay open. Approach with caution, but look your risks in the eye. That’s marriage, that’s hiking, that’s life. That’s what I know so far.

Some things. I've learned them.

Mitchell Point is off exit 58 on Interstate 84 (eastbound.) There are a limited number of parking spots, and a reasonably clean pit toilet. No fees or permits are currently required. The hiking distance is no more than 2.5 miles roundtrip, with 1200 feet of elevation gained at a steep grade. Dangerous footing on talus slopes requires caution, and makes this hike potentially unsuitable for pets or small ones.