Space Hands: A Flashback to Dog Mountain

A hiker I met at the trailhead told me that the point of climbing Dog Mountain is to prove to yourself that you can. I can certainly defend that case.  

Dog is a relentlessly steep hike, with a nearly 3000-foot elevation gain, and wildly unpredictable weather. It’s classically beautiful, particularly once you gain the alpine ridges and their sweeping Columbia River Gorge views. It’s popular, too, which leads me to the conclusion that Pacific Northwesterners are both impressively fit (albeit in a casual, let’s-go-have-a-donut-now kind of way), and gluttons for punishment. 

Middle Earth never looked so magical

Perhaps it’s just that we take pride in our willingness to go the extra mile for natural beauty – even if that mile is an uphill slog in the freezing rain. In which case, we’re not pushing our sweaty selves up mountains like Dog to prove a point, but to chase an experience. Although in my own experience, the two lie may unsettlingly close.

I’ve climbed Dog Mountain several times since my first ascent in the mid-2000s, in both seasons, many weathers, alone and with companions. I did it once with my climbing partner, moving at a steady, fast pace, training my lungs for Mt. Hood. This was in the unusually cold May of 2009, and we didn’t make the summit. At the last section of the hike, you have a choice: tightrope your way along a narrow traverse of very steep, unprotected slope, or circle around the forested back way. On that occasion, the wind was literally screaming across the face of the mountain. But the back way turned out to be so deeply snowed under that we were punching through the drifts into thigh-deep holes. Only a few hundred feet from the top, we found our common sense and reluctantly turned back.

I hiked it once in late summer with a runner friend, who thought it would be amusing to race me to the top. I have never been a runner, it was hot, we had no first aid supplies, and I had no idea of how to trail-run safely – but I was young enough to think this was a good idea. Today I think the fact of remaining upright and uninjured means we both won.

Many seasons later, I had reason to be grateful again for exactly that, though for very different reasons. For one thing, I was prepared this time – so I thought. I had more experience, and I knew the mountain much better. Maybe it’s the false familiarity of memory that makes us so vulnerable to the surprises our favorite wild places can unleash. On a new adventure, you expect the unexpected, and in that sense, you’re ready for it. On a known trail, it takes you aback. It sneaks up on you, when you should have seen it coming.

worth it

I’ve heard for years about the incredible early summer flower displays on this hike. The best in the Gorge, many hikers have told me. And I already knew the intoxicating power of the views – forested mountains falling away on all sides, the peak of Hood crisply outlined to the south on a clear day, the wide majesty of the Columbia silvering along far below. But I had never actually seen the yellow balsamroot in bloom on those precipitous slopes. So I packed my bag one day in the prescribed season – a much warmer May, this – and convinced my husband to accompany me on his first ascent of Dog Mountain.

This was not a clear day, and our views were limited. In the same way that artificial constraints can free personal creativity, this day’s veils of moving mist highlighted the awe of each brief portal over shining river and evergreen ridge. Several times one of these stunning visions literally stopped us in our tracks. We leant back against the mountain, planting all four limbs to fight the conviction of falling over the edge of such sublimity.

And indeed, we had timed our ascent to perfectly match the blooming arrowleaf balsamroot. Balsamorhiza sagittata is common across the drier areas of the western US and Canada, but there is nothing common about the massed display it spreads over the steep shoulders of Dog Mountain. If you haven’t seen it – well, let’s just say that for me, the sight of thousands of lamp-bright flowers glowing through the freezing, buffeting fog was very nearly worth what happened next.

Which was that I got chilled, and couldn’t get warm. It wasn’t a truly cold day, and you make a lot of heat toiling up those slopes, so I was hiking in a tee-shirt, with gloves against the wind. I had appropriate layers in my pack, but I kept recognizing landmarks as we climbed the cloud-whipped trail, and thinking I’m almost there. I’ll stop to put more clothes on at the top. My memory, as memories are, was flawed.

I still felt fine when I ducked beneath a sheltering fir and piled on the shirts, then peeled off the gloves for a brief summit snack of tangerines and chocolate. Within a few minutes, I knew I’d made a bad mistake. I was hopping up and down to stay warm while we ate, and it was working, kind of, but my fingers – jammed back into my gloves after only a brief exposure – had caught fire. They felt the way it feels to put your hand into an ice-full cooler to pull out a summertime beer – and not take it out again. Beyond aching, beyond cold, they refused to work, and my hiking poles were suddenly useless. I shouldered my pack and clamped my hands beneath my armpits, and we started moving down, headed for the relative shelter of the forested lower slopes.

Without my poles, I slid on the loose trail. It was easy to catch myself, but I did it at the expense of my left knee, which hasn’t been quite as strong since matching itself against another, slipperier slope in a different country. Soon I was limping, and the poles were back out, with my frozen fingers fighting to hold them steady. I had stopped thinking through my options, because there was only one goal: get off the mountain. Lucky for me, one person in the party was still thinking clearly: Jeremiah reminded me that I carried a space blanket and a knife.

We made strips out of the shiny mylar and wrapped it like mummy bandages around my hands. Almost immediately I felt relief. Soon my fingers were merely cold, and we picked our way carefully downtrail, joking about space hands (do the motion for “jazz hands”) and favoring our abused extremities.

It's the future

When we weren’t talking, I was thinking about wilderness, and human fragility, and what to learn from my present mistakes.

I was also thinking of my next ascent, which seemed, in a certain light, ridiculous. Wasn’t I currently in pain, and still in danger of serious injury? What is the point of choosing an activity with a good chance of causing  pain and suffering?

Most outdoor junkies I talk to like the difficulty. It’s that idea of taking a route to prove that you can, pushing yourself so later you can say with earned pride “I climbed Dog Mountain today. That trail is a beast!” We positively enjoy just a little suffering. It flavors the experience. An achievement is more real if you’ve bled for it. But crabbing gingerly down a mountainside with my fingers wrapped in mylar and my knee shouting threats that I’d never walk comfortably again, I thought perhaps this was not a reality I needed. I’ve done this climb, I’ve seen the views, I’ve proven whatever point there is to prove. I have a bum knee, and I don’t need to blow it out just to keep earning the same mental badge over and over again.

So I thought about never making this climb again. I thought about how memory fades and shifts, and places do too. If you never come back to a place, you cease to see it as living and only know the discolored photographs in your mental scrapbook. If you do come back after long absence, it’s not always recognizable.

Maybe those things are okay. Certainly I feel no regret at the preserved contents of my own memory book. Dog Mountain looks good there, and it will still look good if I let it fade to sepia.

Those balsamroot flowers in the fog, though. Those calf-burning ascents through gorgeous open forest; that first surprise view, long before the top; that little treed shelter near the summit.

I’m writing this months later, with many easier hikes in my immediate past. The understanding of my physical limitations keeps growing, though, and the question of return to Dog Mountain remains undecided. Just in case, I’m back in physical therapy for my knee.


The Dog Mountain trailhead is located on Washington State Highway 14, about 12 miles west of the Bridge of the Gods. There’s a largish parking area, but this is a popular trail, so get here early or come on a weekday if you can. Bring your Northwest Forest Pass, or pay $5 (cash only) at the trailhead. The full hike is about 7 miles long, with an elevation gain of 2900 feet. The Augsperger Mountain trail down heads off to the west a little below the summit; this is a slightly less steep (and very beautiful) option to return to your car. There is plenty of poison oak on the lower slopes, though it’s generally kept back from the trail.


Concerning Topography: La Pine State Park

The ground sounds different out here. My boots strike all wrong. They practically bounce in some spots, ringing against some buried echo chamber. A footfall later they’ll sink, just a fraction of a sound-absorbing inch, before the soil springs back, hurling my soles upward with a silent puff of dust.

It’s not just the ground: the air takes some getting used to. 4,000 feet up and a good deal drier than my home west of the Cascades, it’s chilled at dawn with the scent of the river, and redolent by afternoon with the dusty-tangy perfume of the Ponderosa Pine, soaked out by the sun.

I spent most of my first hike in this high desert pine forest adjusting the force and angle of my foot placement, relearning the slight shifts in the commerce of air in and out of my lungs. Trying to figure out the rules.

The Little Deschutes is extra little in a dry October.

The high, level forests in this part of Central Oregon are an alien land to me. Lodgepoles and Ponderosas dominate. There’s little undergrowth, certainly nothing a person couldn’t walk straight through, and everything is the same green-brown-khaki. Dusty trails don’t meander, but run away straight as a ruler until they’re swallowed by the trees. In spite of this, they go nowhere I expect, and I’m constantly disagreeing with my compass. Without the periodic trail signs, I’d be lost within five minutes’ walk.

It’s the flatness, and the sameness, that jams my navigation. I’m used to remembering my way by the lay of the land, by the location of distinctive features. Except for the cut of the Little Deschutes River, there’s nothing attention-grabbing in this endless place. Beautiful purple peaks ring the area, but none are visible from the enclosure of the trees, identical in every direction. The river reassures me, but it shouldn’t: winding and twisting, it’s all ways from everywhere, and I can’t count on it to lead me home.

I’m uneasy here – and also, I love it.

I’m a Portlander made, drawn to live in the lush blue-green of wetter landscapes, cool colors blurring between layered river and ridge. Here, the sharp green of pine against high blue and sere khaki echoes the contrast of sky and sand, sea and palm I knew in Southern California. I like the way the trees stand out like they’re cut and pasted: no watercolor smudging allowed beneath this omnipresent sun.


Even eclipsed midday by pearly layers of winter clouds, the sun is always in charge. Her ruling partner is the silence. Between them, they shape this land for me. Of course, there is noise: an engine turning over, dogs barking, chickadees foraging, ground squirrels scrabbling, someone rolling out their barbeque and laughing with their neighbor. In an urban setting, this is background noise. Here it’s foreground, entirely audible, and what lies behind it…a vast, sentient quiet.

I’m staying at a cabin here in the State Park campground, sitting on its porch this morning watching the sun shafts in the pines through my own streaming breath, cupping my cold hands around an imaginary cup of coffee. It’s early winter, but the warmth and the sun linger late this year, so the passes from the west are clear, and here I am.


Despite immediate appearances, it’s not all flat out here. Today I’m going to find myself some landmarks. 

I could walk out of the forest (I’d like to), but my family objects, and anyway it would take more days than I have. So this morning I’m climbing the side of the Newberry Crater in my dad’s big Chevy truck.

I’ve been here before, in early summer, when the lower reaches harbored ravenous stealth mosquitoes. They let me get just far enough down the shore of lovely Paulina Lake to be out of easy options for retreat, before mounting a full-on attack. I am not ashamed to say that I ran like hell.

Paulina Lake: Scene of an attempted Mosquito Massacre

Today we turn gratefully uphill. My Oregon Scenic Byways book says Paulina Peak has what I’m looking for. It’s a twisty road to the top, unpaved and un-guardrailed, with an unforgiving drop off the left edge. But at the top, there is no one, and there is everything. At 45 degrees Fahrenheit, and a shockingly snow-free 8000 feet, I fit myself for a human-shaped bowl of rhyolite at the highest promontory I can find, and settle into the view. Landmarks, everywhere.

Two lakes lie below, steel blue crescents a couple of thousand feet down. (From here, you’d never think of the bugs.) A frozen river of gray lava curls between them; evergreens surround them, spreading to distant peaks. A ridge of this very mountain juts into the foreground, sparsely treed and spiky with bare brown rock.

My parents and husband are somewhere below me, pointing out peaks, debating direction, and figuring out which mountain bears what name. I’ve forgotten I ever cared about my compass. Instead I’m drinking in the full effect, grabbing it with both hands, both eyes, both ears. Or that’s what I’d say I was doing if you asked, but on reflection, the language of conquest and consumption is not appropriate. Really, I just sit there, curled in my rock cup with hazy layers of blue on blue peaks unfolded before me, and absorb a free gift.

The best things in life are free. And all that.


Back on my porch in the warm afternoon, I’m itching at the closeness of the pines and irritated by the chatter of my neighbors. Even my family, discussing at a normal volume which wine to open, fills me with impatience. The wind on Paulina Peak whirls in my mind. Visible, empty miles spread below me, silent. I feel the pull of longing like an anchor.

There’s a reason we call those brilliant, shining moments of wonder and happiness “mountaintop experiences.” That’s how I felt up there: high. I touch awesome, solitary godhood, just remembering – and forget for a moment I need other humans to live. I need heat, more practically, and food and water and a decently soft place to sleep. Up there for an hour, I’m John Muir rhapsodizing on Glory. Up there any longer, I’d have been fantasizing about a fireplace and company and a nice glass of wine.

I’ve been reading C.S. Lewis this weekend – an old favorite literary adversary. Perelandra, specifically, which has it that a good thing enjoyed ought not to be sought again and again. To prolong and pursue even the best of pleasures beyond their natural season of enjoyment is the way to self-destruction. Lewis is a moralizer and a bit too black-and-white for my experience of the world, but I often see his point just the same. Pining for my mountaintop, I see this one very well.

I pull away from the wind, the inertia terrible for a moment, and go inside. “Let’s open the ‘05 Pinot.”


I’m partial to porches. If I had one, I’d only ever be indoors to sleep. It’s late morning just now, cold enough for two layers of socks, and I’ve learned my lesson from yesterday: instead of gloves, I’ve got a chipped blue mug of coffee. Jeweled stars gave way to a bright, pale dawn, I’ve been sitting here watching the sky pearl over and then darken, smelling the dampening air.

We’re leaving today, and I’m supposed to be packing. You bring all your own linens, dishes, everything to these cabins, so it’s more than stuffing clothes in a backpack. I’m reluctant to miss this strung-taut morning. We’ve been waiting for the rain for hours, but instead there is stillness, everything dimmed and hesitant. Even the bold tiny squirrels – the sort whose chittering scold is the exact vocal equivalent of vigorous fist-shaking – have gone to ground.

Jeremiah comes out to ask for my help, and I tear my gaze from the sky and start to rise before he opens his mouth. He smiles, though, and says instead “Stay here, Love. It won’t take long,” and disappears back inside. It looks like telepathy, but it’s really eleven years of hard work at  marriage, to a partner whose joy is helping others find their own. I can hear him singing lines from Hamilton while he folds the blankets.  I want to say thank you, but I’m still caught in the tension of the sky, and I can’t speak.

From one split second to the next, a muffled tearing, like thick paper slowly ripped from edge to edge, announces the arrival of rain. There’s a brief distant roar, and a second later all the pines sway dramatically as one, a great intake of breath. The tension surges, cracks, scatters – and then settles. Rain patters thinly on parched ground, a pair of ravens start up a conversation. The trees stand sentinel again, as if they had not just storm-swayed for one blink-and-you-miss-it second.

My coffee is cold. I am cold. And I won’t wait out the vain hope of another such moment. Each time I visit, I pick up a few pieces of this landscape’s puzzle. I’m content to let it reveal itself thus, over time. Landscapes are like friends: you can’t rush familiarity, and even when you get there, you can’t guarantee closeness.

For now it’s time to go home, where I can follow the river and expect to get somewhere familiar.
This river is out to get you lost.
La Pine State Park is open year-round for camping, although many loops close in winter. Several cabins are ADA-accessible. Day use is available seasonally. There are several miles of mostly easy trails within the park. Newberry Crater is a National Monument, so you need a Northwest Forest Pass to park anywhere within it. Trails range from easy to challenging. 

Oneonta Creek Part 2: Oneonta Gorge

I remember writing that foolish risks are not a measure of worth. More recently, I collected some thoughts I had up at Triple Falls about evaluating risk. I was totally sincere. And then I decided to climb over the logjam at Oneonta Gorge.

The Oneonta Gorge is a tiny wonder: a narrow half mile stretch of clear water and tumbled stones, enveloped by straight canyon walls weeping with maidenhair ferns. You access it just where Oneonta Creek drops to the level of Old Highway 30, well below Triple Falls, but not far in terms of walking distance. ‘Hiking’ it isn’t a hike at all, but rather a wade – or sometimes, depending on the water level, a swim.

Magic (TM)

The creek is low today, late in the season, and it’s (barely) warm enough to slosh up it in shorts. My friend Michelle is with me, as keen as I am to experience the remembered magic of this place.

We’ve forgotten the logjam. Or rather, we remember it as a little thing, an easy obstacle. We’re thinking of a large pile of sticks; something like a beaver dam, maybe. What’s actually before us is a snarl of felled trees easily twice our height, cracked and splintered and only temporarily at rest, polished smooth and slick with moisture, backed up like Seattle traffic behind several car-sized boulders. I don’t know whether to fault the misty gloss of memory, or the lack of maintenance over the last several years.

It sounds simple enough on paper, but a log jam live under your feet is slippery, treacherous, and unforgiving of mistakes. The other day I watched a group of teenagers climbing it, shouting and whooping encouragement to each other at the top of their lungs. I was on the edge of asking them to turn down the volume when I realized: this is a fear response. They were laughing in the face of danger, shouting their war cry at fate. They had good cause. At least one person has died here in recent years.  


I’m balancing on the first stripped trunk, 20 feet of thin air and pointy sticks below me, when Michelle calls a halt. This isn’t such a good idea. She’s right, and I back down. We stand on top of a sloping boulder and point out angles of approach, talk about how it’s wise to walk away from something so dangerous and unnecessary. We convince each other to let it go. And then we change our minds and cross anyway, crouching and sliding and picking our way, very slowly, keeping three points of contact. We’re not proud – just determined.

Because the other side is where the magic happens.

Imagine walking in clear, chilly water to your waist among spotted troutlings. Unless it’s midday, the canyon walls block direct sun, but slanting beams strike the maples far above, and the their glow fills the narrow space, gold like fairy dust. Your destination: one of the world’s sacred dead ends. Fifty feet of water pours out of silk-slick black rock. To really feel it, you have to brave its weather and wade into its jade-colored pool, where you crane your neck back and focus alternately on your awe and your balance.

I’m using words like “magic” advisedly. There really is so much that is other here, something special, or maybe – it’s a loaded word – holy. I speak of the Columbia River Gorge in general, but particularly the watershed of Oneonta Creek, and especially this lower canyon. In the few miles of trail that traverse this watershed, the pilgrim may experience three entirely stunning waterfalls – one of which you can walk behind – and this small exquisite slot canyon that’s inimical to cameras, but ravishing to the human eye and heart.

Michelle and I discuss all this unselfconsciously.. It doesn’t feel weird to say “sacred space” in her presence. We take turns wading into the pool, giving each other room for communion. I fill up slowly, steadily; feeling myself recharge is like watching a gas gauge rise. When the energy overflows, it spills out as a manic grin, and I’m compelled to turn and share it with Michelle. She’s got one, too.

I was up at Triple Falls last week with another friend, Rachel, sitting on a rock mid-river and talking about forest goddesses and faeries and mysterious experiences. Rachel is practical and put-together and competent; her mystical side, when it flashes like the sun on a leaping Chinook, surprises and delights me.


This is one of my favorite aspects of spending time in the wild with a single good friend: this ease with a sort of casual mysticism. You can feel it by yourself, but get back indoors and you start thinking you made it all up, how silly, it’s just trees. Sharing your experience aloud seals its legitimacy. You can change your mind about what it meant or what caused it, but you can’t deny that it was.  

It doesn’t matter whether we process our outdoor encounters with the sacred literally. For me, half of it is what David Oates called “things I have experienced but do not believe.” A human being in the wild sees differently from one in a boardroom, or a theater, or car speeding down the freeway. Out here, we remember that humanity is not alone. It gets a body thinking, and paying attention. And saying things that feel uncomfortably earnest when you repeat them indoors.

So I’ll go ahead and say it: Oneonta Gorge is a holy site. I’ve always assumed people climb that log jam “because it’s there,” but maybe there’s more to it. Perhaps it’s an act of devotion, conscious or otherwise. A small sacrifice of safety (accompanied by the risk of a much larger offering), as a way to prove our worth for the reward.

Certainly the way we behave here indicates awe – the old school sort, where you’re also feeling slightly small and afraid. We seem frivolous pilgrims at first: the teenagers with their war cries; a 20-something couple languidly passing a joint back and forth; a woman stripping off her jeans to wade the deep pools in her lacy purple underwear, whooping at the cold. But even the brashest among us only start off that way. Pretty soon we’re all exclaiming quietly over tiny fish, and pointing out fern spores lit by the slanting sun. Slowly, we go silent, just smiling at each other, united by the experience as awe transforms into belonging. And now we’re true believers. We’ll carry this place with us, and we’ll always want to return.

I don’t suppose this happens to everyone who comes here. But it did to me, and I’ve seen it happen all around me, more than once. It’s magic.

Just maybe, it’s worth the risk.

love that Depression-era stonework

From Portland, Oregon, access Oneonta Gorge from I-84 Eastbound, using exit 28 for Bridal Veil. Turn left on the Historic Columbia River Highway, and drive past the grander attractions of Wahkeena and Multnomah Falls. (Need a mocha? You can get one at the kiosk at Multnomah. Go early.) When you see a sign for Oneonta Gorge, park on the side of the road before the bridge, or, if that’s full, drive a little past it and park on the other side of the pedestrian tunnel (pictured above.) You don’t need a permit of any kind. The “trail” is of at least moderate difficulty: between that tricksy logjam, sharp rocks for footing, and the possible swimming, it’s no stroll in the park. It’s also not very long: maybe half a mile each way. Give yourself a couple of hours to fully enjoy it. Don’t forget shoes with excellent tread that don’t mind getting wet, plus a sweatshirt, a change of clothes, and a towel. The water is cold, even in summer.

Oneonta Creek, Part 1: The Trail to Triple Falls

The best thing about Triple Falls is just above it. Oneonta Creek is dropping steadily from its headwaters – not much further up the mountain – and just before the falls, it threads around a number of flattish rocks. It’s as easy as anything to walk out onto them, into the middle of the flow. Right to the edge, if you want. With the clear water combing itself out straight to either side, step up to one of the raised knuckles that squeeze it into three distinctive strands. Look out – and down. Resist the sudden compulsion of your own wings.


I remember balancing up there, alone, feeling like a goddess of the forest. A goddess has no fear, no reason for it. She lives in that thin, beautiful space on the edge of death. Is it as beautiful to her, without mortality to flavor it with awe?

That I left that space alive, every time, is due to nothing in myself, but entirely to chance or fortune, the goodwill of water and rock. Or a goddess of the forest.

My friend Rachel laughs when I tell her this. We’re sitting across from Triple Falls in the mellow light of an autumn morning, watching the three streams split and spill into the air, white and flecked with sunshine like that goddess poured out a melted opal. “I used to do that, too,” she says. We were both invincible once.

Before – what? What changes that unexamined conviction that life is free, and known? Remember when you could reach out and take every offered risk, swallow it whole, smile at the danger? Then you have children, or a partner, or just time behind you, and you begin to articulate what is at stake. You don’t stop taking risks, but you start to see them as something you might be wrong about. You start to calculate them, cost-versus-benefit style: How much do I need this moment, to be me?


Today we are picnicking on a rock further up the creek, sitting cross-legged with our backpacks in our laps, sharing our apples and chips. Getting out to that rock was easy, sitting up here in the sun fairly safe. Yet there’s always a critical risk in a place like this. I could slip and break a leg, Rachel could lose her balance and strike her head on a stone. We’re as secure up here as the world can make us, which is less than it seems, and more than enough, usually.

Rachel and I both have a memory of someone who went out into the wild one day and never came back. Mine was a cousin of my father’s, never met because he went rafting on the Colorado before I was born – and was never seen again. Leaving your nest is always a risk. Though staying isn’t much safer.

The world is shrinking, I keep hearing that. And I can see it for myself, in a way: suburban sprawl and instant internet connections with the other side of the planet; perfect reception today on a lonely mountain that wouldn’t give me half a bar two years back.

But aside from the fact that I’m not sure this constitutes shrinking, precisely, there’s also this: it’s an illusion. It’s harder, now, to walk out your door and disappear, but you can. The world is still that wild.

No, YOU'RE tired of going uphill


Rachel is a tough cookie: she likes deep wilderness, the kind that scares me. I learned just today that she worked two summers in Stehekin, Washington, a remote spot in the North Cascades you can reach only by trail or boat – a long trip either way. The place has one road, no neighbors, and about 100 regular human residents. Hiking here in the Gorge, you aren’t likely to see a bear even once, but there Rachel expected to share space with the ursine population. I’m both fascinated and deeply uncomfortable with this.

This place we’re walking today is not, by Rachel’s standards, wilderness. It’s almost noon when she says this, and it’s hard to disagree: our route descends a popular, relatively easy trail from Ponytail Falls, on which we’re politely passing and being impolitely passed by hordes of visitors. One woman looks completely bored, picking her way over leaf-draped stones in thin-soled flip-flops. The pikas in the rocks and the birds in the trees have gone silent – except for the corvids, who aren’t so easy to intimidate: their shouting matches our collective rumble, easily. But no one on this motley human pilgrimage even glances at the scolding jays.

I sort of assume my own definition of ‘wilderness,’ so much so that when I tried to articulate it just now, I failed. So I looked it up, and this is the closest I found: “An uncultivated, uninhabited, inhospitable region.” The western Gorge both is and is not all of those things. It’s much less inhabited than it might be, thanks to its 1986 designation as a National Scenic Area. And its thick forests and steep walls are a tough climb, especially in the Pacific Northwest’s famous wind and rain – so there’s the inhospitable part.

It’s also cut by a major freeway, and its easier lower reaches are a huge tourist draw. Graceful, solid Depression-era stonework reinforces, and, I think, beautifies many trails and overlooks. Does the reliable ebb and flow of a non-resident human tide – and all the stonework and guardrails and signs that go with it – disbar a place from wilderness status?

there and back again is really not very far

And if this place is not wilderness, should I mourn that? I am glad not to expect any meetings with megafauna, and guilty for that sense of relief.

My relief coexists awkwardly with my suspicion at the very idea of ‘comfort’ with the wild. Hiking is joy to me, but a little fear and trembling goes with the territory. If I do not tremble, what does that mean? If I do not want to tremble, what does that mean?


I’m just getting settled in wrestling with these ambiguities when I run up against another, one that throws the match. Before there were European-descended people in America, arguing about wilderness preservation or species conservation or responsible use or whatever, there were people here already. They weren’t visiting the wild; they lived here, shaping the land to their use. Their ‘wilderness’ wasn’t uncultivated, certainly wasn’t uninhabited.

Of course, you know what happened: a forcible changing of the guard, wherein lives and languages are lost, and concepts like land and wildness are today defined by a power structure based largely on profit, self-interest, and the all-important right of ownership.


Who owns this land? Ostensibly, the American taxpayer. (A designation that, depending on their treaty status, may or may not technically include the Native Americans we took it from in the first place.) A portion of our individual incomes funds the management of the place, and it’s here, preserved in some form, for us to…well, to use.

And do we ever use it. Our use is the modern, Romantic sort: we come here to get exercise, to experience a wild(?) place, to find inspiration, or peace, or to identify plants or to play with our kids in a mountain-cold pool. We come here on family vacations and school field trips, to see something bigger than we are. You could say we come here to feed our souls.

Doesn't look a damn thing like a ponytail, does it?

Our culture treats places poorly when profits are on the line, so I’m glad our Gorge is at least partially protected by its public ownership. Sometimes we treat wild places poorly anyway, through ignorance, or through love. Our early hydroelectric dams, for example, blocked the annual salmon runs. Today’s large-scale pilgrimage of urban individuals to the wild comprises both adoration and desecration, as we trample fragile trails and strain waste disposal capacity. Are we – am I – justified?

It’s part of my identity that I must walk around outdoors, regularly, preferably in places with less visible human imprint than the small city I live in. Does my inner Romantic then justify me? Is the risk worthwhile? One thing we do know: the wilderness – or whatever this is – survives change by humans, though in altered form. (It’s humans who don’t always survive that.) Is that enough?

Hard questions, but I’m out here walking while I ask them. Moving forward, into a life I hope is mostly good and right. Even more, I hope it’s never too sure of itself. Yesterday’s solid ground is sucking bog today. And yesterday’s barren streambed is a river in full spate, complete with waterfall.

Artisanally hand-carved wilderness


The prettiest way to reach Triple Falls is from the trailhead at Horsetail Falls. This way, you get three waterfalls in one hike, including the truly astonishing Ponytail Falls, which you can walk behind. Take interstate 84 east from Portland, and leave the freeway at exit 28. There’s quite a bit of parking at Horsetail Falls, and you don’t even need a permit. The total hike, depending on exact route choices, is only a little over 4 miles. Although it’s not difficult, rocky footing, a few steep stretches, and lots of small ups and downs ensure a good workout.

Another Happy Accident: Silver Star Mountain & The Lewis River

I love to wake up early. Six-thirty in the morning, or a little before, is best. Much has been written by other early risers about the joys of a quiet home and empty roads and a solitary dawn, so I’ll stop with the recitation now. If you’re not already a willing sunriser, I’m unlikely to convince you with a list of my favorite things.

It does work on my own self, though, which is one reason I keep it at the ready. There’s also a negative version in case of unusual reluctance: crowded trails, long drive, hot sun, end of day traffic… I needed both at 5:30 this morning, warm in bed and still tired from a late Friday night.

We’re well past the equinox now, with summer tipped over and sliding into winter. It’s a languid slide yet, but the sap is coursing. Storms are coming, and the rivers are gathering speed. What that means this morning is there’s no light to help me. After a long summer, the transition to rising in darkness is a tough one. I know from experience I’ll manage fine. In the meantime, there is The List.

It’s “long drive” that gets me moving today. I’m headed for Silver Star Mountain, an hour at least from my Portland home – and that’s just the paved part. The drive is beautiful: leaving Vancouver (the First Vancouver, not the Real Vancouver up North), skirting Battle Ground, and heading out toward the sun along the rural East Fork of the Lewis River.

Autumn understory

I haven’t purchased a new hiking guide since 2005, but I’m in the preliminary stage – I’ve borrowed a few updated versions from the library – so I have two sets of recent directions that more or less match. No signs point to my destination, and after a certain point, the roads – State and National Forest tracks that provide access for various commercial pursuits to the Land of Many Uses –  lack both names and pavement. I favor Paul Gerald’s 2014 edition of 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: he brings impressive clarity to a confusing list of numbered roads, landmarks, and mileages.

Even with this guidance, there’s a point where we’ve stopped at an uncertain fork between two clear cuts. They left one tree standing. A bright orange scrawl on the slim gray trunk says 4109: ——–>

The road this far has been reasonable. A dry summer and some recent light rains combine to create the most pleasant possible experience of a surface that could be potholed, washed out, washboarded, unbearably dusty, or full of big loose rocks. But it isn’t! Until now. Forest Road 4109 is headed up hill at a significantly steeper grade than L1100, and it takes the combined powers of Jeremiah (driving) and me (pointing, advising, getting out to check clearance) to negotiate a dozen tricky spots within the first mile. Gerald says this road passed his “1992 Nissan Sentra test,” and pretty soon that’s our mantra: every time we drop into a rut, both of us hold on hard and repeat in unison “92 Nissan Sentra, 92 Nissan Sentra…”

You shall not pass

Decision points so near the payoff are the worst. We can’t be more than a mile and a half away, but this next rut is a gully, and if our car goes in, she’s not coming out. I think about the time I stood maybe a few hundred yards from the summit of Dog Mountain, sunk to my right thigh in snow layered on ice coating fallen trees. I turned around: the summit can wait, I want to live. On Silver Star Mountain, no one is going to die. But there’s nowhere to leave the car without blocking the road, and if we press on, it’s going to be a long walk out of here for a tow truck.

On the way back down, Jeremiah says, in his Friendly Tour Guide voice, “Insiders call it ‘Silver Star,’ because you get a special medal if you can get up here.”


There are risks to always having a Plan B. Without an alternative, I’m more likely to persevere.  Bragging rights go only to the winner, and if I turn around on this impassable road (snowed-in trail, mountain thunderstorm, red-flag relationship), I am admitting defeat.

But the perks of removing yourself from a dangerous situation tend to be underrated. Everyone loves stories of risks faced and overcome. I’ve rationalized enough poor decisions that way, but I’ve been lucky: I’m alive and content to tell those stories. I’ve also learned to count the value of giving up when the cause is lost – or stupid. Life is not actually a contest. Foolish risks are not a measure of worth.


Not as stupid as we used to be, we end up back down the road a ways toward civilization, at Moulton Falls County Park. The trails that leave from here are easy, groomed. Tame. I was all psyched up to battle the bad-road odds and then work my way up a mountain.

the lovely Lewis

While I’m adjusting my testosterone, I walk out along the river, and the first thing I see is a dipper. How I enjoy these lively little river birds! She’s hopping purposefully from water to rock, in the shallows of the most beautiful little watercourse I’ve seen this side of my own river, the Smith. This one is the Lewis. (Though I’m wondering what it was called before Mr. Lewis came to Washington.) It swirls softly between forested canyon walls, glass calm in the middle, and clear as a blue-green mirror. Further downstream, it pours between pitted rocks in a miniature gorge I lose my heart to instantly. I think I’m in love.

This completes my adjustment.

We wander the rest of the morning along flat paths brushed with falling leaves, down rural roads mellow in autumn sunshine, and over the pitted rocks next to waterfalls that think they are perfect calendar photos from 1995. I creep close to the leaping spray: crouching halfway up the cataract, reaching out, but not touching the rainbow that’s refracted in a thousand droplets. There’s a long moment of magic. Then my foot slips, and I’m sitting inelegantly, one foot in the falls. My sock soaks through, and my boot is filling up.

I start laughing. Still in love.

Lucia Falls


So here I am again: failing a classic trail and finding…well, just something else. A place I wouldn’t otherwise have noticed, maybe. Did I miss out on something great? Probably. For now. But roadblocks are an invitation to detour.

It takes me some time to settle to a new direction, to see beyond my disappointment in the change. I wanted to conquer – it’s a hard thing to shed the atavistic impulses of an aggressively patriarchal culture – and suddenly I was just strolling along, washed in easy beauty. I did nothing to “deserve” this: there was no sweat, no tricky navigation mastered, no shout of victory from the top of a rutted mountain road. But I ended up anyway in a quiet place where alder leaves ripple the surface of a deep, clear stream. My only challenge is to accept the gift.

Grace: that’s the word for this day. And every other.

oh happy day

Silver Star Mountain is an area, not a trail, in Southwest Washington, usually considered part of the Columbia River Gorge. It offers too many diverse options to list here. For the record, I was heading for Ed’s Trail, at the top of Forest Service Road 4109. I hear it’s amazing, and you should go there. Just make sure you have a few more than the 5.5 inches of clearance I was attempting the drive with. You will need a NW Forest Pass.

From the parking lot at Moulton Falls Regional Park (smallish, no permit required), you can walk to Moulton Falls, stroll along a gorgeous flat path that parallels the Lewis, meander down some pretty country roads, and cut over to the nearby park that houses lovely Lucia Falls. It’s all easy. We walked about 7 miles roundtrip, but you could easily cut it shorter.