Boundary Lines

Does anybody ever want to hike in the rain? This afternoon’s precipitation has settled into softness, but those early morning drops hit hard. An undecided proto-storm was blowing in, the Doug firs around our house billowing every few minutes in a wind that felt barely in check. I thought about staying inside.

My mother, in southern California, dreams of walking in rain. I used to do the same, imagining myself exiled to the perennially dry Ventura coast. We envisioned the sort of pleasant, soaking mist that brings high cool clouds to that near-desert for a few glorious days each winter. When it rains on the Oxnard Plain, arroyos flood, streets become short-lived rivers, and motorists forget how to drive. Staying inside is not only preferable, but wise.

I don’t wish for rain to walk in, not anymore, but neither do I wish it away. It’s a feature of this wet and forested shelf, where the boundary between water and land is often unclear. In the Pacific Northwest, waiting for a break in the rain is a great way to ensure you never get out.

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Our first few steps on Wapato Greenway promise we’ll get wet. Sauvie Island, like everywhere else this dripping spring, is a mudpit. The greenway wraps around a smallish seasonal lake, its unpaved tread mostly wallowing between wetlands. A short stretch breaks out into remnant oak savanna, where the path is dry, draining to the lake. Otherwise, it’s floored in dark, foot-marked sludge, littered with the shell-pink petals of the flowering shrubs that crowd the margins.

I never used to think about surface conditions. Before our weekends coincided, I did most of my walking sans husband. Sloppy trails, downed bridges, or fallen trees were challenges met and negotiated in the moment. I planned ahead for no one’s comfort. Jeremiah is a stoic sort, relegating unpleasant outdoor elements to a sort of ‘this too shall pass’ mentality, flipping over stones to find the fun in the situation. It’s a skill I try to cultivate. But it has the unfortunate side effect of allowing me to forget that his love for mud is roughly the inverse of a lungfish’s. Every time he lets slip a frustrated “eew” – quietly, probably involuntary – I sink a little deeper myself.

My various trail guides have promised me a pleasant, easy walk, and I can see how it’s very nice indeed in summer. In the mess of shredded petals, heavy mud, and sodden skies that is early spring, I still enjoy it. A raft of wintering ring-necked ducks dominates the little lake, and I point them out to Jeremiah, chattering about how it’s the rings on their bills you can really use to identify them.

I’m distracting, of course, which means distracted. In our regular expedition of two, I’m de facto leader, responsible for destination, maps, time and distance estimates, supplies, route-finding. In the past few weeks, I have led my single team member into three consecutive piles of sticky mud. If he were the type to keep score, I’d be voted off the island by now.

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I enjoy the role of hike leader, much more when everything goes well. The opposite duty rewards as well, with less performance anxiety. It’s a joy to share the outdoors with another. But it is new to me to understand that I have a distinct focus when I hike accompanied. I’m fully engaged in being with.

It’s obvious now I say it; I suppose I knew it and forgot. (I’m amazed at the way insights surface and submerge, like diving ducks on the lake.) Walking with, I focus in, on us. My diminished outward glance is directed at sharing the experience of this place. Which is a beautiful, affirming thing. Some of my strongest bonds have been forged exactly this way.

It’s different, though, from meeting a place alone. When I walk without other humans, sometimes I can access a shift, by effort or by luck, that allows me to merge with more than my own self. It feels like a thing I do not so much do as accept. Like the place is meeting me, too. I don’t have a name for this awareness, this way of bringing a picture into focus that is outside myself. Or as outside as a conscious being may achieve.

With the best of human companions, I am myself, accepted and enjoyed, accepting and enjoying. It is the optimal way to be in a human world. I do not know if my wild, non-human trail companions accept or enjoy me. I do know that, walking with them, I am not only myself. Our edges blur, and I walk in a half-world where nothing looks exactly as I know it. It is difficult to cross that invisible boundary in the presence of another human.

The company of ferns and flowers, rivers and robins, is a subtle thing. If you aren’t used to the idea, it’s hard to imagine them as ‘company’ at all. These companions will not remind you to bring a second water bottle; nor will they expect you to know the way. Communication is uncertain, non-verbal. It may be encountered, but should not expected. Rivers are never as interested in my work life and moral dilemmas as my best friends are. But if I listen right, they will let me suspend and submerge those things.

This nameless state – a bit like the last shreds of dream before conscious waking – enspelled me early. A child of six wandering in the redwood forest has little experience to help her articulate the shift. It is only a collection of trees and birdsong – until suddenly it is not. Words come long after the change. A melodramatic teenager and a lonely 20-something seek out this shift as refuge, even crave it above other connections. The state of crossing – or maybe it’s blurring – relieves: you may set yourself aside. You are not all that is.

In my 30s now, increasingly educated, progressively busier with ever-more-fulfilling people and projects, I think about the natural world more often than I feel. Alert, active presence is my default state. I love to be outside, but I forget why I went to the woods in the first place.

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***

Why do I walk today? At last, I have it. Of the many rewards trail-walking offers, this gift of walking outside the self, both magnified and diminished, was the first. This was the siren song.

Arguably, it is not the greatest. Human friendship, knowledge of the natural world, time alone to process your daily life are all valuable, and sustainable, rewards. They are more than enough. I used to see my solitary hiking as a means to an end: with my partner or friends unavailable, I laced up my boots anyway, resigned. I needed to be outside; someday they would join me. Now they do, and it’s a deep source of sustaining joy. I wouldn’t trade it for the lonely way things were. But I have forgotten: there are compensations to loneliness.

It is a healing action, an expansion like a deep belly breath, to shift your relentless focus on being a self. Even describing this bespeaks an attempt to self-actualize. It hear the same language around meditation, and meditation, they tell us, is the province of the spiritually realized human. This is a part-truth, perhaps. It’s also a tiring, self-centered way to view something valuable precisely for its otherness. I do not treasure this half-world crossing because it makes me a better human.

Why, then? But I am unwilling to catch the words that will tell an answer. Now, they are flashing salmon in the stream. Hooked, they are visible, certainly, and also dead on my line. Leave them rippling beneath the wavelets. Peer over the bank, and watch for them yourself.

Let the rain be your gatekeeper. Circle a winter-full marsh on a damp gray morning in early spring. Enter an old-growth forest, thick with silent fog. Already, you cannot tell the boundary lines.

***

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Wapato Access Greenway, a flat trail around what used to be called Virginia Lake, is on Sauvie Island, a few miles north of Portland, Oregon. Once on the island, turn left on Sauvie Island Road and keep straight on the same road for a few miles until you see the wooden sign on your left. There’s a modest amount of trailhead parking; no fee. It’s a short loop, unpaved, about 2.2 miles, with minimal elevation gain. Birders take note: the Portland Audubon Society designates this an important area for bird monitoring.

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