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.
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.
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.)
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.”
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.
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.’)
The 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.
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.
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.”
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.