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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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