Bedrock

At 8am, it’s t-shirt warm where the sun dodges the encircling hills to strike the path beside the Klickitat River. The hills are lazy guardians – drowsing, probably, the sun warm on their own backs – but the canyon they shade is deep enough to do most of the work. I walk three quarters of my outbound journey in the early-cool of a spring morning, perfumed with desert parsley, chilly enough for gloves.

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By the time I turn around – reluctantly, just after mile marker 4 – the scent of ripening day is warm grass and pine dust. The rolling whitewater beside me sparkles with gold and rainbows. The sound of it, on a sunny morning, is peace and comfort straight out of childhood summers. I’ve never met the Klickitat before, but it’s bringing me home, just the same.

I’m in the midst of major decisions, big changes. There are factors in play other than my own choice, and juggling the choosing and the waiting is tiring work. I long for a simple progression – query, answer, change, done – but instead I live inside a process, camped at a crossroads with an unreliable map. The path-choosing part is hard enough: to take one, I must leave the other, and they are both good. I am baffled by the imperative to sacrifice. When I tell my father this, there is a long pause. “Honey, that’s just life.” He sounds faintly surprised, and also sympathetic. I have never been here before. I’m flying blind through a minor paradigm shift.

Not blind: close family and friends see to that. They point out landmarks, weigh the pros and cons of different courses, and just listen while I talk my way around the map. But only I will make the call. For that, I need to come back to my own bedrock. I need to listen outside of humanity, and outside of myself.

There’s a wild turkey on the hillside, hidden among the pines and lupine. I catch a glint of gold on the back of his neck, a red flash of wattle. He calls, a garbled sound that makes me imagine small stones rolling into a river.

The trail crosses the Klickitat above a narrow chasm constricted by jagged black rock. White and green water pulses through these shallow falls. The Yakama Nation has fished here for uncountable generations, dipnetting steelhead, coho, and chinook. They’ve been out recently – I can see platform materials stacked and waiting among the rocks – but today, the falls are empty of humans. I don’t see any fish, either. The gathering of gulls downstream at the river mouth says they’re coming, though. As the tide ebbs, a fishing platform materializes in the form of a thick sandbar, and more birds join the jostling congregation.

I like this sort-of-wilderness. The trail passes a busy fishery, a home or two and an access road here and there, and it parallels SR 142 on the other side of the river. But soon enough the path runs low alongside the rapids, with nothing but a steep grassy slope filled with lupine and balsamroot at my other hand. The road is quiet all morning. Hawks and chickadees and jays and that turkey make enough noise to cover the traffic sounds anyway.

It’s a wide path, enough for two to walk side by side, with the largest rocks kept off-trail and boardwalks carefully constructed over the marshy bits. I like that, too: it’s no challenge to place my feet. I can think, and not-think, freely. I can talk to Jeremiah, who doesn’t mind when I stop talking, and fade into the sound of the river. I can fall behind, absorbed in the acrobatic flight of a pair of nesting tree swallows, and it’s easy to quicken my pace for a few minutes, catch up, pick up the decision-making.

The canyon around me is abundantly verdant, though the ecology on either side is recognizably eastern Gorge: all open spaces, sun-loving and drier than not. Here, well-watered grasses and shrubs crowd the Ponderosa pines, and the maples show off that special hazy shade of spring green, the color of millions of dangling new catkins and unfolding baby leaves.

Landscape does not “talk” to me, but I do listen. I can’t translate what I hear into anything other than itself: a collection of trees and birdsong, a river in spring flow, a series of happy memories. It is more than that, but that is more than enough. It is here. And, I can see clearly now, so am I.

***

The Klickitat River Trail starts in Lyle, Washington. There are two sections; this essay comes from the first, which traces the river from its mouth to the town of Klickitat, 13miles upstream. Most of this part of the Klickitat is a designated National Wild & Scenic River.

This section gains less than 400 feet, with footing that gets occasionally rocky, but never particularly challenging. There’s parking in a nice new lot (relatively small) at the junction of 14 and 142 in Lyle; no fee to park. Restrooms are seasonally available. 

Second Best

I’ve never seriously considered the question of love at first sight. Is it real; isn’t it? I don’t know. The closest definitive I can offer is that connection at first sight is alive and well.

I’ve known it with people; today I’m clicking immediately with a place. More, though: my heart – my wondering, soaring heart – says this is a favorite place. Which can’t be, of course: I’ve never been here before. You have to know a place, to love it the most.

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Maybe you’re streets ahead of me on this one, but this is just like the time I realized my favorite book and my favorite writer are not the same.

***

The Klamath Knot is in its seventh or tenth year of favoriteness by now. (Although some challengers have lately arrived.) But when a friend asks for my favorite author, I don’t hesitate: Guy Kay. Who definitely did not write The Klamath Knot.

I have more trouble with the out-of-doors analogy. I’m very familiar with my best-loved locations; I have a list ready at my fingertips. It doesn’t much change:

  1. Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park
  2. Wildwood
  3. The Mendocino coast

Not a one of these deeply loved places in any way correlates with favorite trails.

What is a trail but a path through a place? What is a book but a piece by a writer? How does an entity come loose of its moorings and take on a separate significance?

***

This place, Whidbey Island, is a special one, and I can see it ranking in the Top Ten. I need more time to make that commitment. But it’s an hour after sunrise on a gray day lifting into endless blue, and I need just this moment to understand that this trail – the Bluff Trail at Ebey’s Landing State Park – is one of my favorites, ever.

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Why? Easy: It’s the way I am here. Emotional state notwithstanding, when I climb this path between sea and sky, I am filling in the lines that sketch my soul’s shape with vivid color. I don’t believe in fate, or destiny, (or souls), or any kind of “meant to be,” but here I am again, clicking into place with every step, like somehow I “belong” here. I don’t have to believe this, I’m experiencing it.

Okay, but why? You’re right, it’s not that easy. What features of place create that click? I can’t settle on an answer, so I’ll theorize. It’s the sea, maybe, and the mountains across the water, grand as their name: the Olympic Range. Or the easy-access blufftop setting, walking along for a couple of miles far above beach and strait, with the kind of views spread all around that usually get parcelled out to challenging summits only the super-fit can reach.

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I love theory, but soon enough, my brain is demanding quantification: just how favorite is this trail? Top Ten? I’ve been talking to my hiking partner, but now I go silent, ranking.

Internally this feels like being absorbed into my surroundings, blurred so that the I shimmers out of focus. Usually, my thoughts are that family of quail in the underbrush. Scurrying shadow to light, whittering softly to each other from under cover, changing direction with bewildering lack of focus. Today they are pelicans: cruising along, no particular hurry, but they know their mission. Top Five, I decide, and a little later: second best. 

***

My delight in lists and ranking goes way back. It’s a bit of a tangent to tell it, but my relationship with those is pretty deep too, so.

In my early teens, I lived briefly with my aunt and uncle in Tuscany. My aunt is a Marriage & Family Therapist, and perennially fascinated by the human brain. I’m attracted to bookshelves in general; my aunt’s in particular have been a reliable gold mine all my reading life. My love of lists comes down to a volume I found there, quite by accident.

Or – how do I know? – maybe my aunt left it out for me. Maybe she pointed to it on the shelf. Memory shifts like sand in a receding tide. So to picture this scene, I have to make up the details. My journals from the time might illuminate the facts, but they’re unbearable. I prefer the privilege of artistic license.

*

I’ve woken with the sun. My cousin’s room is still cool and dark at this hour, but the wiry gray cat that lives in the downstairs apartment has strolled through our 3rd-story window again to say buongiorno. He seems fragile from down here on the floor, but look close: those scars and that attitude proclaim him champion of the local arena. Or just listen: he’ll tell you all about it. At dawn.

My cousin can sleep til noon through just about anything, including voluble tomcats. I rise and approximate a cat-like greeting to Michelino, then steal downstairs. There are fresh melons on the kitchen counter, but I fuss with last night’s bread and the finicky toaster. (There’s no excuse for being sixteen.)

The living room is two walls of windows and one of books. First thing, I’m after both. The windows I ease wide to the morning, which is, this far in the country, everything I’d hoped. Hills roll away to the horizon, hardwood forest unbroken, with the sun rising peachy-gold to wake the treetops. We’re near the top of a slope, so there’s a valley in between here and there: more homes, hidden in many more trees. I can’t see a road.

I finished yesterday’s book late last night. Making free with the shelves this morning, I seize without hesitation on How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: 7 Steps to Genius Every Day

*

Fully-adult me is slightly sheepish about this: Good lord, what a self-helpy 90s-sounding book. But I’ve got news for me: it was the 90s. And that book did better than help sixteen-year-old me, it fired me up.

There’s a whole story there, probably, but my point today is simpler. That book is responsible for one of my favorite mental games: the Top Ten List.

If I remember correctly, the author argues that making Top X Lists (the specific number is not important, though ten was in vogue at the time) trains your brain to sift between fine gradations of good, and articulate why you like something. Having to rank one good thing above another forces you to more granular reasoning and teaches you how to weigh subjective value.

There are dozens of exercises in that book, and I think I tried them all, but they didn’t all stick to the intervening sixteen years. Exactly three of them did, and yes, I can rank them: this is number one.

A few years ago, I took a job as a search editor for a Big Name Internet Company. My mentor in that position was (is) a professional taxonomist, which is a thing I didn’t know you could be, outside the hard sciences. The ‘taxis’ part of the word refers to ordering and arranging – it doesn’t specify a subject. I’ve spent plenty of time trying to identify my goals in life (Think Like Leonardo encouraged that as well), but I don’t get on well. This one found me: of course I wanted to be a taxonomist. I’d been training for it all my life.

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***

And now you know why I spent the rest of that Ebey’s Landing hike, and then the rest of the day, trying to pin down my Top Five Trails. I failed. There are only three in my personal canon. I could change the rules and make it a Top Three List, but I keep returning to it like it’s a tricky puzzle: only two more! Almost there!

(This is the part where Think Like Leonardo would advise me to let it go. A true genius is meant to cultivate comfort with the ambiguities of existence. I am not a genius: I suck at uncertainty.)

One of my trails I have walked only once, and it’s so far from home I’ll be lucky ever to return. This one I’ve traced twice so far. The last I’ve hiked a dozen times, but so many years ago, in childhood – another world – that I’m not even sure it’s one path. Maybe what I remember is as much the work of my imagination, a stitching together of feeling and impression, as a recording of facts at the time. Today, the place it holds in my heart goes far deeper than literal truth. We construct our memories as much as they do us.

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Which seems a strange way to explain trail-love at first sight, but here’s the thing: a favorite track is one that attains this kind of mythic presence. It doesn’t have to be familiar: new myths are created all the time, bursting onto the scene with every bit as much power as the venerated ancients. We live them. We reinvent them all the time. We need them. They’re hard to see, but we know them. They’re indelible, indescribable scents – or invisible burrs in your socks. You might literally stop in your tracks to examine the moment you meet one, but eventually you have to keep moving, one foot in front of the other. It’s a marvelous way to get somewhere, not just physically.

Since Ebey’s Landing, I’ve been scouring my hiking guides, searching numbers four and five. But I know it’s useless. I’ll know them when I feel them. And then I’ll re-evalutate the whole collection, and rank them like a boss.

***

Ebey’s Landing State Park is on central Whidbey Island, Washington, on the opposite side of Highway 20 from Coupeville. Follow the signs to the beach and pick up the Bluff Trail from the north side of the parking lot. You’ll need a Discover Pass for Washington State Parks, which is currently $10 daily, or $30 for the year. The full loop, about 3.5 miles, involves one short but steep climb on good footing, and about a mile’s slippy walking on the beach. You can also access the bluff from other trails within Ebey’s Reserve, with little athleticism required. If you don’t want to hike, don’t skip Ebey’s Landing: come here an hour ahead of sunset and sit on the beach. Bring your jacket and hat, and your sense of wonder.

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Dawn

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A blue-sky spring day in the Columbia River Gorge is a beautiful gift. Fifty minutes driving east from darkness into an unfolding sunrise is the best way I can think of to open it.

I left Portland at 5:30am out of a sense of springtime urgency. The Gorge – especially in the drier regions east of Hood River – is famous for its wildflowers. They begin as early as February and some last into summer, but March through May is the most reliable season. My immediate future has itself blossomed with sudden opportunity. I was looking at my calendar last night, scheduling some down time, when I realized I stood in real danger of missing my favorite time of year in the Eastern Gorge. I thought about the checklist I need to conquer this weekend, and then I opened my guidebook anyway. Some things are more important than another round of paperwork and dishes. Both of which matter a good deal, and both of which (more’s the pity) will stay just as they are if I ignore them.

There’s something exciting about leaving for a hike before dawn. Night and day always seem different worlds, and rising from my bed in one to arrive someplace new in the other feels like raising the curtain on a stage where some novel adventure is bound to unfold. It’s everyday time travel.

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The opposition of these two worlds – defined by light, really, but quantified by vast differences in sound, texture, temperature, and activity – is less fascinating than their overlap, which is why, I think, so many of us go out of our way to pause, and watch, at the liminal hours. What mysterious alchemy makes night into day, and vice versa? We have at least a vague acquaintance with the scientific answers (hint: no alchemy is involved), but there is so much those leave out. We’re pretty sure it isn’t magic, but think back to the last time you watched a sunrise. What was it, then?

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I catch a lot of sunrises from the road, behind the wheel. I get plenty of pink light in my peripherals, and a few stolen glances at the line of fire along the sky. Today, though, someone else is driving. The barely lightening sky flows like another river between the dark, sloping shapes of forest. Waterfalls are starry-pale tears down invisible faces I know in the day for bare rock. Far in front of us, dull embers flare above the distinctive shape of Beacon Rock, and in the sky-river above, a few cloudbars catch the rusty glow and bear it slowly westward. The river below is unpolished pewter, banked and present, flat and featureless.

The moment of dawn is defined by clouds. A deep and lightless gunmetal gray, heavy and flat like the river, they are nighttime clouds. As the sky shades upward, rising through deep water, they take on depth and texture against it: wispy edges and smooth twists of vapor, shaped to catch the fluorescent emergence of the day to come.  Sure enough: orange deepens to the color of a spawning sockeye, spreading violet along the underbellies of the clouds. By the time the whole sky flames tulip-tree pink, the world around it is completely colored in.

This is where most of us come in on a sunrise. This final splendor calls us to pause at our office windows, or step out the back door with a cup of coffee. By then we’ve missed the moment of transformation, though these celebratory fireworks are a fine compensation.

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***

The trailhead I’ve chosen begins in a narrow canyon, ascending in irregular switchbacks between walls of basalt. It’s still dark in here. An unseen singer pipes the dawn – a bird whose name I do not know, whose sound I’ve never marked. Out on the river – silver now, quietly shining with its own collected light – a flight of swans is dropping out of V-formation, parachuting gracefully to a soundless water landing. They’ve shaped their wings as sails to catch the currents, and they draw the sunrise too: winter hearthfires on the wing.

I never imagined I would be this person: balancing multiple jobs and projects, scheduling evenings with friends two months in advance, writing hiking days and unstructured alone time into my calendar, so I won’t forget to find them. I have always preferred my daily life unhurried and largely solitary, my events and commitments few and well-defined. I have never found pleasure in simple busyness.

What has changed? My work. Each commitment that absorbs 35, 20, 10, or 5 hours of my week means something, beyond the consolation prize of earning income. I have not only occupation but purpose. Not every project sings my soul awake – but some do, and the others manage a faint hum beneath the surface. Which is more than I knew I could ask for in a regular occupation.

If I have to block off time for social or solitary pursuits that do not advance my various agendas, I don’t resent the interruption. My work fills me up, and I am grateful, but it will not replace forever the deeper sources outside my own ability and fortune that have sustained me for so long in the absence of fulfilling work. There’s a balance in here, somewhere.

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I’m thinking this as we emerge into my perfect landscape: open, green-grass plateau, broken into topographic stacks by escarpments of lichen-specked rock. Enormous views open to the west and south: folded hills still shadowed in early morning, the flood-cut river gorge, Mt Hood’s occluded white peak. A burst of startled action not far off shows me pointed ears and a fluffed-up tail, scrambling up a rock face and disappearing behind it in the time it takes me to apprehend: coyote. 1100 feet up, light wells over the ridge, outlining the slim legs and alert ears of a single deer.

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My first wildflowers are fallen white stars, caught in the sprawling green tangle of a wild cucumber vine. Desert parsley is everywhere, too: Easter-yellow umbrellas topping fluffy foliage I’d draw with the perfect, original “green,” if I still had that box of Crayolas.

Ruminations on work and purpose skitter backstage when I spot my first shooting star. They’re a shocking purple, these backward-facing blossoms, with a glowing yellow center that must be the fiery leading edge of the comet they’re named for. I’m instantly kneeling in the grass to capture a portrait on their level. It doesn’t work – the background hills are crooked and the flower itself out of focus – so I topple sideways, backpack and all. Here is purpose.

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There will be another steep climb later, featuring sunny balsamroot blooms, tiny pendant bells the colors of sunset, and views that never quit. (Until we reach the top and plunge into a forest of smallish oaks cupped in an endless high valley. The trees are leafless yet, twisted with lichen. The road becomes briefly a stream, and I mark two very large, very clear feline prints. I hope the cat stays hidden; this forest is unsettling enough.) But at this moment, prone in the grass with astonishing tiny flowers and sweeping views on every side, I know nothing on this trail will compare. I’m right, in fact. The highest places have their compensations – mainly the feeling of superiority you get to relish when you reach them. Next time, I’ll be content right here.

‘Right here’ is a perfect, wandery bench. It’s the cradle of possibility: flattish, with one edge a sheer drop and the other sloping teasingly upward, traced by a network of grassy trailets. I want to follow them all. Then again, I want to sit here, imagining them. The conservationist in me leans hard on the latter. The more people who walk here, the greater their impact. And impact cuts two ways. You can measure it in terms of soil compaction, non-native species spread, and uncollected dog shit, and you can measure it in terms of money and publicity and passion to protect a loved area. Trails are conduits to place, for better and for worse.

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I turn back for the main path. We are no longer conquistadors, or we should not be. The well-blazed trail ahead of and behind me will offer reward enough. Such joy does it hold forth, in fact, that I forget, mostly, the responsibilities that wait at the trailhead. I am glad to forget, watching a raven perform lazy acrobatics out above the falling-away hills. But I will not mind remembering, either.

Once, this time was my escape. I have never disliked my life, but I have wished it better, disappointed by unethical employers or underwhelming pay. Seeking to improve, I have dreaded the polite and necessary fictions of another interview for another job I lacked temperament or passion to enjoy, another job I’d perform well without either. Working for the future and the weekend, checking myself at the door every morning, I left a hundred windows open in my calendar, ready to startle for cover. Trailwalking let me disappear, and I needed that, to remember myself. I stood separate from my public and professional lives, while I tried to discover the nature of the gap.

It is as much luck as anything else that I am no longer trapped. If it is harder, now, to find the time to travel for the pleasures of early morning in another landscape, it is also infinitely more satisfying: a layer of being and beauty that contributes to my life and work.

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I tried to fill the gap, early on, with walking trails. I may have expected this to be the thing that saved me, that showed me a way out. But it was fortune did that, and good friends, good timing, the privilege of enough money in the bank to take a chance. There was nothing romantic about it, nothing predestined. There still is not. Instead of an event that leads to change, walking has become the touchstone by which I may, with time and care, measure the truth and goodness in my self, my surroundings, my friends, my family, and my work. And it weaves the connecting paths I could never have imagined between them.

***

The trail described here is called the Lyle Cherry Orchard Trail. (Spoiler alert: zero cherries.) It’s about 10 miles east of Hood River, on the Washington side of the river. Just east of the town of Lyle, in fact. The trailhead is not marked, but you’ll see a wide graveled pull-out on the north side of the road, just after a pair of really obvious tunnels.

The trail is narrow, occasionally slippery with talus, and gains about 1100 feet over 2.5 miles. It can be pretty steep, but is usually well-enough graded. Total mileage, out and back, is about 5, with plenty of other spur trails for adventurous souls who bring their maps. Watch out for ticks here – they love it when you lie in the grass to photograph wildflowers.

The land is owned by the Friends of the Columbia River Gorge Land Trust. There’s no fee or permit needed to park, but a small online donation to support the Land Trust’s work would not go amiss.

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