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.
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.