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 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.
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.
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.
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.