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.
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…”
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.
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.
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.
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.