Home Territory

I haven’t been out hiking in weeks. First, I was injured. After that I stuck to the streets of Lake Oswego. I walked to the North Shore bridge, around the bay to the library, along the river at George Rogers Park. I watched the sun rise out of the river, lightning flicker above the forest at Cook’s Butte, and rain soak into my jacket at 5th and A.

All of this is home territory for me now, accessible from my door for the price of an hour or three on foot.

I read that last sentence and I think that sounds perfect. It is.


Sometimes my feet almost literally itch; the spots on my mental map marked “here be dragons” start to glow. Weekdays find me scribbling lists of destinations; I flip through guidebooks all evening, make plans to cross a border and set my feet down somewhere new. This is not that time. As the New Year begins, and especially as mid-winter shifts toward bud and bloom, I will feel the pull, and answer it. Meanwhile, December is a homing time.

The beacon is winter, but it’s also Christmas. As my family has done as long as I can remember, I do every year also: put up and string lights on and decorate a noble fir tree (Abies procera), singing along the whole time to the alto parts in Handel’s Messiah.

I am the only person in my house who needs this ritual. I do not share it with children, or the kind of large extended family I grew up with, or even another Christmas-happy adult. I might miss those things, and then again I might not. I love my personal Christmas unconflictedly, and I want to spend every spare moment curled into my green chair beside my gold and crystal tree, enjoying the fruits of my ritual labors. This do in remembrance of we.

There are no extant pictures of my tree that do not also involve booze.

An afternoon inside, no matter how stormy, feels wrong without a morning outside. Which is where this incessant pacing of the outdoor places I call ‘home’ comes in. I’ve lived and walked here long enough that you might think I hardly see it anymore. But I do, and more: I see its layers. It’s all familiar now, and I remember discovering each bit. Every walk, our first encounter echoes back from the trees.


Ten minutes from my house, a dirt trail climbs a boulder-strewn canyon, next to a jade-colored creek. Just before the dam that keeps our local lake filled, the water slides down some moss-painted rocks about 50 feet below below a truly magnificent bridge. It’s nothing from the car’s point of view, this bridge, but from the creek, it’s a soaring marvel of engineering, hidden in the trees. The first time I saw it, I thought: a ruin! And I stared in awe until I realized it’s just the bridge down the street from my house. Still entirely functional. Mundane.

Because of that, my awe deepens with each visit. I recognize that same feeling when I stand on one of the massive Columbia River dams. Wild nature and human art highlight and enhance each other, even if they are always fundamentally competing.

And this is better than those damn dams. This is in my backyard.


Jonathan Raban says that one of the pleasures of traveling is imagining what it would be like to pick up your own life and move to this place. My version of this is to imagine my new home territory walks.

In late November of this year, I spent a long weekend with Jeremiah in Sooke, British Columbia. It’s a small community on the west coast of rainforested Vancouver Island, the last sizeable human break in that endless river-scarred coastline.

The place is spread out and lacking in signage, difficult for a newcomer to navigate beyond the main coast highway. I’d read up, but it seemed less confusing to ask around. Our hosts suggested several outings, “the Spit” first among them. A barista told us “Try the Spit. I walk there every morning.” At the grocery store, buying cheese and meat and bread for the weekend, the cashier asked “Are you taking a picnic to the Spit?” We were now.

“The Spit” is Whiffen Spit, a name that sounds whimsical to my ear, but is probably entirely practical. (Wild guess: the nomen of some early – white – mariner, combined with a perfectly normal geographic feature of coastlines with a specifically angled prevailing wind.) The reasons for its popularity are immediately apparent: it’s flat and it has a paved trail, it’s easily reached by car from the highway in town, and it’s simply, stunningly beautiful.


We walked it first while the sun set into a wintry sea, facing down a biting wind. I watched for the first stars, tugging Jeremiah’s hand each time he turned for the car: wait, just one more! On the seaward beach near the tiny lighthouse, an old man sat entirely still, eyes on the ocean, impervious to the freezing wind and the gathering dark.

Next morning, a scrim of glittering frost outlined each rounded stone and driftwood sculpture. Wearing all our layers, double-gloved hands in our pockets, we walked fast to keep warm, nodding along the way to a dozen others: older couples hand in hand; two men with small exuberant children; women laughing together on a morning run.


Halfway out, a stooped and ancient-looking fir squats among the stones. A sign in its lower branches informs walkers that it has done great service as the community Christmas tree, and has earned its rest this year. Another tree, further out, wears dozens of mismatched ornaments.


Out to sea: snow-capped peaks on the horizon, sky and water blue and gold and gray, the moon fading and sinking. On the other side is Sooke’s protected harbour, pink with promise at this early hour, and alive with cruising sea lions, raucous gulls, departing fishing boats. At the shoreline, ravens pick at a pile of kelp, leaping comically away from the tiny, lapping waves.

In the course of our weekend, we found walks more isolated, less known, more challenging and more wild. It’s the Spit, though, where I imagine greeting every morning, learning the patterns of wildlife, walking in all weathers. It’s a homing place.


Returning from travel, I imagine my town for the first time. If I moved here, where would I walk?

I cross the highway and loop beneath the bridge, poke around on the rocks below the dam, crouch beside the river at dawn and listen to the ducks’ commuter conversations. What a lovely place. I would visit every day.


I need this as defense when the wanderlust strikes. It’s easy, then, to forget. But with December’s chill, my traditional time to celebrate the familiar arrives like the winter flights of Canada Geese, settling in and taking over the landscape. When the rain starts in earnest and I’m soaked to the skin, I can spend the rest of the day inside with the tree lights blazing. Home, the whole time.


Whiffen Spit is at the end of Whiffen Spit Road, which is a sharp left turn from the West Coast Highway (14) heading north out of Victoria, British Columbia. Be on the lookout; it’s hard to spot. No fees, limited parking.

And if you’d like to come walk in my own home territory, be my guest! Lake Oswego doesn’t bill itself as a tourism destination, which means walkers are missing out. Drive south from Portland, past the Sellwood Bridge, on Macadam/43, which becomes State Street through Lake Oswego. (You can also take Tri-Met bus 35.) Park on a side street downtown, at George Rogers Park, or one of several marked “public parking” areas. Take off walking just about anywhere. The bridge mentioned is out of George Rogers Park: cross the arched footbridge and turn right at the lamppost on an unpaved trail. If you like Christmas lights, come at night in December or early January, and start near the main downtown square at Millennium Plaza. There’s free parking in the garage.

Out of Commission: Elk Rock Garden

Everyone needs a place of healing. You know what I mean – I hope you do. Not a place you go because it’s pretty, not a locale you merely love, but one that restores you to yourself. A well of strength you draw from when weakness – that invisible whining child – drags you down by the hand.

Churches were the obvious candidates, once upon a time. National Parks make excellent cathedrals in this age. But grandeur is not a prerequisite. Maybe your restoration waits at a favorite aunt’s kitchen table, or curled around a warm cup at the coffeeshop where you know all of the baristas and most of the other patrons, plus every item on the secret menu.

Wherever it is, name it. Appreciate it. If you can’t do that yet, look for it. Because you need it. Maybe not right now, but you will.

elk rock steps

A few weeks ago, I got out of the car after a shortish hike. I put my left foot on the ground and pushed off toward the grocery store entrance. Immediately, I sucked in my breath and curled my leg up protectively – like a heron, without the stateliness. I limped through the produce section and the checkout line, foot held stiff, and then I went home and iced it. These things go away. Instead, I dragged that foot through the next several days, periodically testing the knifepoint combination of pressure and bend at the main joint of my left big toe. I told coworkers it was no big deal, didn’t tell anyone who didn’t ask first, avoided friends who might question me. I allowed myself to worry just a little bit out loud each day: to my husband, in private. And by the end of a whole week off my feet with no end in sight, I was panicking inside.

The point here is not to tell you about my sesamoiditis – for that is what it turned out to be, and nobody needs to work up a lot of concern for my temporarily tender tendons. The point is that when you depend upon an activity, and then suddenly you can’t do it, your life flips upside down like an egg on a skillet, and the yolk breaks and slides off all over the damn place. Inventive swearing seems like the mildest reasonable reaction; panic is not out of place.

Someone at a workshop asked me once to define myself in one sentence. I declined the request at the time – how do you cram everything that’s important into a single utterance, unless you’re Charles Dickens? – but I’ve thought about it plenty since, and I have an answer ready. The last clause: “…a walker.” You’ll have figured that out by now.

What’s yours? Now imagine it’s taken away. Or maybe you already know what that’s like.



I’ve arranged to see my doctor tomorrow, but I have no idea yet what I’ll learn. Mostly, I think about something else. At this moment I’m driving home from work, and I’m out of audiobook. This means my mind is unfocused, presenting me at uncontrolled intervals with anxieties that range from the reasonable – It might be a stress fracture; What if I have to get crutches? – to the unlikely, and uncomfortably shouty: WHAT IF I CAN’T EVER HIKE AGAIN? I take a deep breath to drown that one, and then I swing the car to the left at a known intersection, plunging and swerving onto a steep residential street that ends in my healing place.


Elk Rock Garden of the Bishop’s Close is both rambling garden and large house, set on a bluff above the Willamette River’s west bank. If the name sounds a bit formal, slightly old world, it is: the original owners came from Scotland, and today the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon conducts its private business in the house, maintaining the gardens for public enjoyment. It’s just barely possible to stumble on the place by accident, but more likely you’ll live a half a lifetime in the area before someone tells you it’s there. Yet there’s no shortage of someones. It may not be a major tourist attraction, but Elk Rock Garden is clearly a place of quiet pilgrimage.


It started off that way for me because I love grand old houses and formal gardens. My only regret in choosing to reside on America’s west coast is our comparative lack of them. Travel with me in England or France – or Virginia – and I’m going to drag you to at least one great estate.

This one isn’t large or stunning; there aren’t miles of path, there’s no challenge to a stroll here. And it’s not entirely a safe place. The slippery brick walkways behind the house, for example, are out for your blood; the paths that climb the bluff tilt perilously toward the river below. The road into and out of the tiny parking lot is either an accident waiting to happen, or an object lesson in the value of patience and acceptance as a general approach. First-time visitors sometimes seem bewildered; regulars are quiet, inward, content. Half the time, there’s no one else around.

For all of those reasons, I return. I’ll ignore the place for months a time – easy months, usually. I have a long history of coming here in difficulty. I’m drawn back to wander when I am hurt or listless, when the effort of walking somewhere more challenging, more public, is too much. Anxiety, grief, or injury awake in me a desire to be alone but not confined at home, to be outside and yet feel enclosed. I also come when I am heavy with gratitude. Attendance here is a particular species of prayer.

It's like they're TRYING to kill you

Today I am alone, limping along the gravel paths at a banana slug’s pace. The deeply wrinkled skin of tall old oaks provides a textural anchor in this muddy watercolor of a winter day. Everything is gray, green, brown, yellow, orange. I choose one and try to focus, but it blurs into its neighbor: brown-gray trunk, green-brown lawn, yellow-green leaves. There’s a soundtrack to the watery visuals: distant, rushing highway traffic; in the midground, crow and chickadee chatter; in the foreground, drip, drip, splat. Everything is messy. Nothing blooms. The bench I’m seated on grows wonderful furry moss in stretching seastar shapes, and flaky mint-green lichen. I have time today to notice very small things.

From late January to about July, the garden pops with wonders: face-sized magnolia blooms; wisteria thick with bees; madronas with their smooth limbs like human muscle shifting beneath lime-colored skin; the closely-packed, mysteriously-scented blooms of the winter-bare Paperbush. By late summer it’s full of spiders, like the rest of Portland, and perhaps they feed on the garden’s tidy beauty: by the time they’re gone in November, they’ve left the place a leaf-littered mess. I come back anyway. It’s not about the beauty.

don't fall

Though that’s discoverable, if you’re looking. I am, especially now. Experimenting on lonely garden paths, I’m looking for a graceful way to move with this new limitation. I need to stop often, and, still looking, what I find is my own error. Hidden low down, a single fuschia flirts its flamenco skirt at me, baby pink and royal purple in petticoated layers. Instead of smiling and moving on, I rest, and there’s another, and another, behind a screen of green-gray foliage. I rise, slowly, and tiny pink roses on spindly stems meet me at eye level, tangled in the low branches of a tree. They’re fluffy and delicate and strong, growing from a pile of orange-brown rotting leaves.


There is no resolution in coming here. I don’t find answers, help, or God. Or I do: it’s all the same. What I find, I define as healing, yet my hurt is not less. It is only that I am deeply comfortable here, in a way born of familiarity and routine, and that comfort eases the cramp and clangor of anxiety in my heart.

Perhaps the word is ‘ritual.’ Life is chaos; we each do what we must to anchor ourselves in that storm. I tie my ribbons in the branches here, trace my own footprints down the same paths, over and over. I’m anchored like kelp, planted like a scrappy winter rose.

Grounded, I endure.

hazel maze

Elk Rock Garden of the Bishop’s Close is accessed from Highway 43, between Portland and Lake Oswego. Turn sharply riverward on Military Lane, then immediately right onto the first street. Follow it to a set of black gates at the end of the road. They’re open 8am to 5pm most days, and although no one will greet you, you are welcome to enter. Park as directed by the signs, and be very careful; the single road is not wide enough for two cars. There is no entrance fee, but they do ask you to sign in (you’ll see the signs), and if you have a few dollars in your pocket, there’s a box for those, too. They’ll be used to maintain the garden. Please don’t bring your dog or your picnic.

Presence: Gordon’s Beach

You wouldn’t know how to get down here, without someone to point out the path. You wouldn’t know there was a public beach at all. From the road, there’s not much visible: an eclectic scatter of homes; thick rainforest. There are no signs. I’m going by our host’s written directions, which name this place ‘Gordon’s Beach.’


We emerge just as the moon fades, before sun strikes the far peninsula. The sky pearls, pink as the smooth lining of a conch; our own west-facing hillside lies deep in shadow still. Jeremiah and I are renting a house near Sooke, British Columbia, just off Vancouver Island’s one-lane West Coast Highway, at the top of a steep gravel drive. The weather this last week of November has been clear and cold and dry: short days sparkling, long nights soaked in the pallid brilliance of a full-term moon.

Last winter a black bear crossed the road in front of us here. I’m on the lookout this morning, my limbic system treading water in an unresolved churn of fear and hope.


The beach is dark when we arrive, a slim crescent of rounded grey stones, not much sand. East, the sun swells behind a headland. I keep glancing back to check if it has cleared, but I needn’t; the moment is unmissable, even with my back turned. In one breath, the rocks repaint themselves in kindled shades of amber, quartz, green, and – yes, still – grey. Just like that, I’m almost warm, bundled in layers of wool and cupped by the sun’s bright fingers. Piles of kelp glitter with the sunstruck geometries of frost.


There are no bears on the beach. No people, either, although they’ll come out of the woodwork later, building their bonfires before sunset. But we’re surrounded by animal life. Gull squadrons cruise overhead, whitecaps set free of their watery crests. The rising sun flashes on their backward-canted wings. It’s distinctly orange-gold, but I think of the elusive green flash, an emerald-colored atmospheric phenomenon, sometimes briefly visible at these liminal hours.

Gulls are not ‘sea gulls,’ I’ve learned recently. Plenty of them fish inland waters (and pick inland garbage dumps), but their calls always usher a whisper of waves through my mind. The rhythmic wave-wash off the Strait is no whisper this morning, and our gulls are shouting to be heard. Their calls have gathered all manner of semi-negative adjectives – “plaintive” is my favorite –  associated with loneliness and sadness. To me, though, they speak of freedom. Which is sad and lonely sometimes, too.

A raft of sea lions is playing or hunting leisurely, just offshore. Flippers and tawny backs glisten as they roll and dive. They’re travelling gradually westward at about our own pace. Do they notice us as well? They don’t mention it.


We’re quiet, too. The pebbled wash of water is too loud for human conversation. Walking is slow, slipping on the sloping stones, and hard on a couple of recently injured metatarsals. We can’t even communicate by joining hands; all arms are needed for balance.

So we slip along, togetherly alone, watching the clear waves roll out of the southeast. We have no agenda this entire day, and we had none for this exploration. Time is measured only by the sun, and it does not matter, except for what it illuminates.


I notice, vaguely, that my fear has gone, faded into the day along with my thrill of hope. There is nothing in me now I can viscerally identify as emotion. Instead I am the sunrise, the uneven patterns of wave and wind and my own locomotion. Every encounter is interesting, and I accept them equally: a fantastically shaped log buried upright at the line of the rising tide; half a dozen leathery chitons plucked from their armor and tossed onto the rocks at intervals; the sun and the morning wind full in my face as we turn back to the East. I walk beside my partner, merely present as the world turns, neither desiring the next moment nor missing the one just past. I’ll find time to wonder at this later; I have no such ability right now.

If you asked me yesterday, I would have said I don’t know how to meditate.

Black bera

It’s tough to say how to get to Gordon’s beach if I don’t know your starting point. There’s no parking lot; there are no signs. (And there are no fees.) Stay in the area of Sooke, BC, though, or stop in town for lunch, and ask around about beaches. Gordon’s probably isn’t the first one they’ll point you to; that honor undoubtedly belongs to Whiffen Spit. But it’s a special place, especially for walking the margins of night and day.

A note about staying in/near Sooke: Make sure you like deep quiet, forests, and precipitation. If you do, it’s an ideal retreat. Otherwise, you’ll feel stranded out here on the west coast.