How to Belong to a Place: A Winter Flashback

It’s a blue November morning, the first truly cold day this winter. No precip, dry trails, and the sky shining hard and bright behind tall naked alders. I’m maybe two miles from my house, walking the curving forested trails of the place that has taught me the meaning of home.

“Has taught me.” My tense is wrong. I’ve lived here 11 years now, but home is a thing I’m still learning.

Most of my life, I’ve felt one step above ‘new girl’. I grew up in a military family. We’d live somewhere just long enough to like it, before packing up again for the opposite shore. My parents did finally settle in one place; four years later I moved away to the college that offered the best financial aid. Three years after that, I had a degree, a partner, a very temporary job, and a longing to get the hell out of greater Los Angeles. We fled north and cast our lot in Portland, Oregon. In the intervening years, this city and I have been through just about every phase of love.

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Our first residence sat at the back of a run-down cluster of buildings we chose because a kind apartment manager was willing to rent to us without a deposit. I was lonely and young and struggling – blindly – with anxiety. I started my new life cautiously enchanted, determined to adore this city I had chosen. Look, it’s green! A river, how pretty! Interest devolved from genuine to desperate, until I’d arrived uneasily at that point where you suspect a failed relationship but can’t quite admit it. Soon after, I couldn’t stop admitting it. I hated the 205 freeway, the muddy ruts people mowed in their soaking wet lawns, the alternately tidy and boarded-up homes of my older eastside neighborhood. I hated the dinginess, the dankness, the distance from everything I knew. I hated Portland.

We would have packed up then for another try, but who could afford it? To distract myself, I started walking neighborhoods in every spare moment. I’d pull my spiral-bound Thomas Brothers map book out of the back seat, and run my index finger over the red and black lines until I found somewhere I’d never been. I’d navigate there, then strike out on foot without the map: walk a few random miles and then work my way back to the car. I had rules: no mapping out routes beforehand, no retracing my outbound steps. It was challenging: isolated paths, sketchy under-crossings, loose dogs, so much rain. And rewarding: secret paths, intriguing graffiti, parks everywhere, and the satisfaction of a burgeoning mental geography that belonged to me alone.

Within a year or two, Portland and I were back on – not gloriously or constantly, but we had some fine dates, and I began to see a future. My husband and I moved to a new neighborhood. I liked it, and I liked the one down the hill even better.

Different circumstance, same reaction. Less bitter, I still could not accept a life sentence. Maybe it’s the semi-nomadic upbringing, maybe it’s the connection to other landscapes, far away. Maybe it’s the human condition. Whatever the cause, my brain reeled off an anxious list a dozen times a day. I’ve been here too long. There’s no ocean here. My family is so far away. I already know where all these streets go.

The economic business of life went on, of course. We bought a house in the neighborhood down the hill. A piece of this place that had been just a temporary shelter suddenly belonged to me.

That was four years ago, and something very big has changed between then and now. When I say this is my home, I mean that I belong here.

***

wild winter woods

My neighborhood borders Tryon Creek State Park, which I’ve been walking in and around since the Thomas Brothers days. I credit this tiny wilderness with opening me up to a very important understanding: ‘home’ is not always a free gift. It may be something you earn.

Tryon Creek State Park is actually Tryon Creek State Natural Area – a special type of Oregon State Park. It’s the drainage basin of pretty Tryon Creek, running down a thickly wooded valley between Portland and Lake Oswego. The name comes from an earlier homesteader, fantastically called Socrates Hotchkiss Tryon. I picture an eccentric, voluble man with definite opinions and a long curly beard – or possibly that’s just the last hiker I met on the Red Fox trail.

It’s not a large tract, but it makes up in density what it lacks in size. There are at least ten trails – though they’re so confusingly twisted about near the main entrance that you could be forgiven for assuming there are dozens. There’s little point in following just one; it will hand you off to its neighbor, who won’t keep you long, either. The only direct route is the paved bike path along the northern edge. It parallels Terwilliger Blvd, curving gently downslope toward the Willamette River.

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The whole thing is forest, so don’t look for grand vistas here. Go in spring for the trilliums – single, astonishing white stars blooming on the ground in the verdant shade – or autumn, when the macrophyllae shed their plate-sized palmate leaves into glorious, golden-brown piles. You can find either of those things almost anywhere in Portland, but Tryon Creek’s compact acreage hides a wealth of other attractions that up the ante. Walk only a mile or two, and you’ll cross a shallow, flashing stream on half a dozen characters of footbridge, stumble on secret views over forest ravines, catch the calls of screech owls in the evening and the laughter of jays at midday. In summer, I leave my house early and loop through the park for breakfast – ripe salmonberries and thimbleberries abound in their season.

It’s winter that’s my favorite, though. On a sunny day like this one, the heavily deciduous forest is bright and open, cheerfully messy with piled-up dried-up leaves. Misty mornings are delightfully apprehensive: the land blurring into faerie just a few feet off the trail; creek-speak echoing in the fog. Windy afternoons clatter the bare alders incessantly together; it’s like a preschool music class: joyful, hard to hear yourself think.

Two winters ago, I walked through on the Iron Mountain trail in the kind of utter stillness that accompanies a truly cold day. I didn’t quite understand it until I reached the heart of the park, to find the chatty creek hushed beneath a layer of ice, sprinkled with falling snow.

icy creek

***

Today I’m headed up the Cedar Trail, thinking about my history with this path. Or really, the fact that I have history with this path. Although I remember the first time we met, I’ve forgotten most of the specific hikes between. As I place my feet, I’m statistically sure that I’m stepping in my own footprints.

Somehow I’ve gone from perpetual sojourner to local. Well of course, you’re thinking, you’ve lived there how long? The crucial thing is that my internal identity has made that transition, too. There’s a point where a place gets into your blood, but it’s not a thing you can force – and it’s not a foregone conclusion.

When I realized I would live in walking distance, I wanted the woods and watershed of Tryon Creek to embrace me. I imagined a soulmate sort of relationship, where the immediate spark leaves no doubt that here is where you belong. Instead, I hiked regularly in a pretty park near my house.

I lived so often at low tide, longing to be anywhere but retracing the same ground, figuring out how to live in one metro area forever and ever. I left the boundaries when I could, but mostly, I couldn’t afford the gas to get to the Gorge, or the time off work to go coastal.

Anxious and indecisive, I walked the wild place I could walk to, always two seconds from turning around and going home to cry. My first real feeling for Tryon Creek Park was a deep gratitude for its utter approachability, its circling trails that gently encourage whatever you have to give. Just ⅓ of a mile, says the Center Trail. Up for a little more? Add the Big Maple, it’s nice and flat. How about a nice easy hill, just down to the creek? One foot in front of the other.

In addition to the hiking, I made plans. I volunteered to clear a patch of invasive ivy, and to walk around answering hikers’ questions and reminding them to leash their dogs. I read about the immediate area’s history and ecology; I told coworkers and friends. I wrote some very bad fiction set here. My heart wasn’t in any of this, and I wasn’t effective or good. But my will was looking for a way in, and it just kept knocking at the door. I needed to care about my new home territory.

If my efforts produced no immediate kinship, they’ve created, over time, a history. I walked a lot of early miles here by distinct, conscious effort, pushing through the dull, lonely sadness because I have to do something; I should be outside. When the darkness started to lift, I walked because it’s nice here. Was that an owl? Today I walk here because thank you.

TCSP bridge

Phillip Pullman’s Golden Compass trilogy has this fantastic theme running through it of earned grace. Look up the religious definition of grace, and you’ll see it’s a free gift, something you don’t earn at all: that’s the whole point. Pullman is a great one for turning familiar concepts on their heads, and I find myself drawn back and back again to this one. There’s a first grace, he says: the kind you’re born with. And there’s a second: the kind you must do the work yourself to discover. You might get to keep the first, and then again you might not. The second is the only one that truly belongs to you.

***

Writing about landscape is not a choice I make. It’s more in the nature of compulsion. Before I did it with a keyboard, I hand-wrote my encounters in small, bound books. I still do that. I don’t know if it’s a way to make sense of the world, or to record my thoughts for later, or to live forever – all common and understandable reasons to leave a written record. If I don’t do it, I’m restless, only half-present in the rest of my life.

I have written hundreds of lines about Tryon Creek Park in my journals. It’s mostly records of the senses: the fall of evening light from the alder-tops, summer heat relieved by the breath of the cool creek bed, the first appearance of a salmonberry blossom in early March. But when I settle myself to compose what others may also read, my words are dammed. Smaller streams trickle around the edges, but something in me, beaver-like, shores them up. Why is Tryon Creek so hard to write about?

Maybe because it is my friend. Most landscapes fall somewhere between awkward coworker and friendly acquaintance. Meaningful encounters with these are easily recognized, and the words to describe them checked by no reluctance to reveal. The places themselves live what I know of their lives in my memory, from which dubious vantage they have a hard time contradicting anything I write about them later.

A friendship is a different beast. It grows below the surface, a dense root network that carries the daily currencies of action and emotion almost invisibly between the parties. To give voice to a friend – with whose own voice I have become familiar – is a weightier undertaking.

Without the instant spark, I am not always conscious when I am growing a friendship. Tryon Creek and I come together with a woodland’s slow reserve. There is still an element of careful distance in our relationship, and I regularly imagine how I might bring us into more comfortable alignment. I don’t push too hard, though. Eventually, the land will show me a way deeper in. Perhaps. Its boundaries are its own business.

***

I always take notes in my hiking guides. Most of the entries in my favorite old book are scribbled and smudged and watermarked with the minutiae of multiple visits. The one for Tryon Creek just says: “Home.”

snowy tcsp

***

Tryon Creek State Natural Area’s main entrance is off Terwilliger Boulevard, between Boones Ferry Road and State Highway 43. There is a good-sized parking lot, and no fee to park or to hike. The park has a Visitors’ Center with a small shop (well-stocked with books about the natural world), maps, and volunteers to answer your questions. There’s also a short, very beautiful ADA-accessible trail here, called the Trillium Trail, with overlooks into a wild forested ravine.

Other entrances, with considerably less parking, can be found on Boones Ferry Road between Terwilliger and Country Club Road, and off Andrews Road in Lake Oswego. The park gets very busy on sunny weekends, but you can nearly always find a quiet trail around the margins. For more information: http://www.tryonfriends.org/explore-tryon-creek/visit/.

 

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2 thoughts on “How to Belong to a Place: A Winter Flashback

  1. Lots of conflicting emotions here for me: sadness, helplessness, some tears and happiness. Tryon Creek is special, a beautiful portion of the lovely area you call home. Hugs.

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