Off-Trail

The idea was long walks. Really long ones, like the entire Wildwood trail in one day. Walks long enough they could reasonably be called longwalks, one word.

Jeremiah and I have been talking about this for a couple of years now, though the urgency mostly belongs to me. He’s game to make most situations into a good time. I’m the one who needs to spell out beforehand what the value is. In the case of longwalks, the value is twofold. Just to be walking for hours at a time is the first. The second I’ve been having a hard time pinning down. Perhaps it’s to do with creating and completing a project unusual enough to take pride in. Something like that. I always lose interest because I get stuck just enjoying the idea of a whole day on the trail.

I don’t manage to actually do it, though. We talked about taking 6 days to walk Hadrian’s Wall on a long-planned trip to England, but we abandoned the idea; I don’t recall why. We had a plan for Wildwood on the summer solstice: 15 hours of daylight, 30 miles of trail. As the day approached, I was exhausted from working two jobs, learning a new job, and stressing out about all of it more than seems useful. I said we should go anyway. Jeremiah, as usual, spoke with the voice of sanity.

Yesterday we came back from a loop through our local state park. These last four years, hot summers and the arachnid population explosions that come with them have kept me out of there from late June to winter, but this summer has been relatively cool, and Tryon Creek remains an oasis of unwebbed green. It’s about 5 miles, the loop we like from our house through the park, and back through the central residential area of our town. I suggested, as we drew close to home, that we pursue a second loop, pushing our total to something like 8 miles. Nothing too intense, but I was thinking that we’d been in longwalk limbo for months, and we might make a token effort. Something to remember what it’s like to keep pushing when you’re tired, to reacquaint ourselves with the second wind, with dependence on the whims of weather.

Reasonably enough – we really were nearly home – Jeremiah demurred, and I found myself unreasonably annoyed. I’ve exhausted both of us for the past four months. Why shouldn’t he rest? If I’m not ready, that’s hardly his burden. I’m trying to reclaim my life, and I don’t know how. Longwalking was my idea, each of its plans my original brainchild. I need to reach for something that is mine, and, almost at random, I picked that. But I’m like a toddler reaching for her cheerios – excited, unthinking – and I cry when my enthusiasm is only enough to knock the bowl off the table.

***

Instead of long walks, I have long afternoons on the back patio. They’re all I can manage on your average weekday: work from 6 or 7 until 5 or 6, then I sweep the spiders from the maple tree and take the nearest comfort-novel and a glass of wine to its summer shade.

I am informed by the internet that it is warm today. 81 degrees Fahrenheit by now: 6:30pm. This is probably true, if you are moving, or in the sun, or around the corner from this breeze. Just now I felt the slightest chill, the river on the back of my neck.

Not my river; I’m home in Portland again, all the way home. This is the breath of the Willamette. I caught myself a few months ago calling this one “my” river, too. Is it? Twelve years, and still too soon to say.

The maple above me and the sky in her branches are the primary blue and green of a new classroom globe. Do classrooms still have those? I Swype a text about this to a friend; the keyboard wonders if I meant maps or mangle; maple takes several tries. This has also happened recently with fir, sycamore, and huckleberry. The dictionary my device uses is trained to commoner words. Since when do I live in a world where fir is an uncommon word?

The clouds are rolling in again, a silver mirror. Traffic roars, and I try to imagine a waterfall. Hydrangeas are starting to fade, one bloom at a time, bleaching from vivid to pastel. Midsummer is over, its intoxicating scent ripened and burst, now drying out like the grass. Late summer has a paler beauty I am always a little disappointed to see. I’m a little disappointed in myself, thinking that. I would prefer to see a thing for what it is, instead of what I wish it could be. 

***

There will be another weekend, another walk. A long one, even, if I can be bothered to plan instead of grabbing shiny ideas at random. I will find the path I left.

I’m not sure I have faith in this, in the sense of belief. I place my faith – you might as well call it ‘my challenge’ or ‘my desperate hope’ – in action. I will meet more deadlines, check more boxes, move closer to a workload I am comfortable carrying. At the same time, I will make more walking plans, and some I will find time to follow.

I will remember myself. It may take some practice.

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Recognition

“So, where are you from?”

Jeremiah and I were the only passengers in the front car on the Welsh Highland Railway’s Friday run to Caernarvon. If the manager couldn’t tell by our voices that we’re foreign, our enthusiasm must have given us away. Especially me, hopping from one side of the car to the other, opening every window and composing a new photograph with every bend in the track. My inexplicable foot injury had put paid to my plans to climb Mt. Snowdon, but I was determined to see it, anyway. We’d climbed out of Porthmadog on the flat Glaslyn Estuary on a cool and sunny late May morning, into the mountains of Snowdonia.

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“Oregon,” I said, and opened my mouth again to specify “the States,” but he was way ahead of me.

“Oregon!” He pointed out the window. “Bit like home, hey?” If he hadn’t said it, I might not have seen it. But there is a sense of the familiar here, for one who loves the wet and green Pacific Northwest.

Two days later, we’ve come back to one of the stations by car, to walk the wonderful riverside path of wide, mellow-gold stones I saw from the train. And – though I didn’t know it until this moment – to sit here, in the river.

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Not in the river. I haven’t enough spare clothes for that, and the Glaslyn is cold – like the rivers at home. Even with a cane, though, it’s not impossible to leave the path for one rock and then another, and with three legs to balance on, I’m soon as far as I can go without a dunking, and I settle cross-legged between talkative streams. I don’t presume knowledge of this river. But I feel comfortable here, and welcome.

It’s clear, this water; sun strikes the rocky bed without impediment. I trail my fingers in the flow, raise them automatically to paint the stylized shapes of river, moon, and mountain on my cheeks and forehead. This is something I do every year when I return to greet my own river, an affirmation of connection and thanks. I do not expect to make this gesture in places I don’t know; it happens, sometimes.

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The Aberglaslyn Gorge on either side is profligately green, cool and blooming with rhododendrons. At home, I’d call this shade ‘twilight glow,’ for the way the rich violet hue soaks up the last of the day, giving it back as a candle against the dark. Here, I’m told, the rhodies are invasive, and a regular target of conservation organizations that never get quite enough money to eradicate them. I’m sure such a plant is far less lovely when its shade crowds out native vegetation, and its foliage poisons most animals who want to eat it. I have not mentioned its beauty to the people we meet.

On a level with the rippling Glaslyn, I imagine slipping off the rock to join the flow. I’d do this in my own river, some other rivers in the Northwest I’ve met. But I’m not a casual swimmer. This level of intimacy with a stranger should be startling.

***

We’ve walked north along the river and then south beyond our starting point, parking in the town of Beddgelert in the early hours. There was no one else out until there was everyone: departing around 11am, the town was a different place, defined by density and diversity of visitors.

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A fit-looking Japanese man led three other men, all younger, out of town and east toward the mountain. They wore gaiters, tightly-bundled packs, and determined faces. I knew where they were going, and envy swallowed me like I’d stepped into its stream.

I think a lot about the walking I can do. It’s different, leaning on a shortened, cork-topped stick, moving at half my regular speed. It’s a week since my injury, and I can walk just fine, with my stick. Go more than a few miles, or cross a lumpy pasture full of mud and invisible hummocks, and true, I’m exhausted and in pain, in an inevitable sort of way I’m not used to. I thought about climbing anyway – I could, technically. I said it out loud, once, and Jeremiah looked at me with something a less careful person would express as pity.

So I focus on limping through the valleys, eyes on the ridgelines from a few thousand feet below. It’s the thing that shows me I’m not, after all, at home here. For all the flashing clear streams and tumbled lush greenery below, the mountains rise above us, bare and ancient of face. Clouds collect about their crumbling shoulders.

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Though they are nearly the tallest in Britain, they’re no higher than mine in the Columbia River Gorge. I knew the numbers, but the reality is a different kind of knowing. Instead of the lush melodrama of young mountains, these are quiet and strong and patient. Weathered slopes stand utterly separate from tree-tangled valleys. They feel older than my Gorge. Differently wild.

Confined to the valleys this morning, I am keen to be up on the ridges. I’m also grateful to be walking at all. I must come back here to meet the mountains another time. In the meantime this river welcomes me to something that feels uncannily like home. It is a mystery, and a comfort.

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***

Love Letters Home

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The birdsong is different here.

At home – at my house in Portland – robins are my alarm clock. Turdus migratorius are large, almost comical thrushes, with a massive red bib tied around their throats against the mess they’re about to make of some earthworms. They’re probably pretty, but I can’t separate them from their song – about which the less said, the better. You can go outside and hear it, starting around 4:30am. I can stay inside and hear it, too, through closed windows and a cinched-down pillow.

We have an embarrassment of towhees as well, whose trilling buzz makes me smile.

I am just back from the redwood forest, and I can no longer hear the spiraling song of the Rainbow bird. It has been a few days; by now I’m remembering once an hour, instead of every waking moment. Every hour, then, that blue-green hollow behind my throat aches with longing.

***

The July that I turned five – or maybe six – my parents and my aunt and uncle decided a family camping trip was in order. They picked a park, consulted a map, rented a couple of RVs, and hauled their collective four children eight hours north, to the fog-bound farthest reaches of coastal California.

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I have no idea if that’s really how it happened the first time, but it’s true enough that the eight of us – in various combinations and with many additions – have made this trip nearly every year since. We pack an obscene amount of food (and, these days, alcohol), stuff our vehicles with bedding and flashlights and bug spray and warm clothing, and meet in the same place, a little after midsummer. What we do here together is not grand or unusual – we hike along the creek, swim in the river, tell ridiculous stories around the campfire –  but it has the flavor of ritual. We are a disparate group these days, divided by geography, politics, generation, and circumstance, but we perform our communal rites with the enthusiasm of the convert and the devotion of the true believer. For me, at least, they are the anchor of my life.

I’m not trying to write a melodrama, or a Romantic poem. That’s always how this sort of thing comes out, though, to my own eye: a sort of crazed nostalgic longing for a place and time that colors a whole life the particular shade of water and slant of sun, steals the writer’s originality and turns it back on her home. Yet – I would not be a writer without my home. I wouldn’t be a complete person without it, either. I moved often, growing up, but this place was constant. I left a dozen places, but to this, I have always returned. We have always returned.

***

It’s not called a Rainbow bird, of course. I gave it that name years ago; it took me several more to wonder about its accepted taxonomy. The present establishment calls my Rainbow bird a Swainson’s thrush, and his song is often described as ‘ethereal,’ which is an accurate choice. To me it sounds like a 1980s cartoon kid-superhero, gleefully shooting rainbows from her hands.

Swainies are evasive creatures, and even if they popped about in the open they’d be hard to see – they’re feathered in a dozen shades of brown, with ultra-subtle spotting. I’ve seen one maybe twice. I hear them in my dreams.

***

Leaving camp the first few years of my adulthood, I thought I’d been ripped in two. I wanted to go home – which was camp, which was childhood, and a dream of the future I couldn’t yet imagine.

I did not love northwestern Oregon, I merely inhabited a piece of it. Every mile south at the beginning of the week shouted liberation. Every mile north at the end reduced me to throat-clutching tears.

It is not just the place, of course, although I cannot separate the ecosystem from the effect. It’s family, and memory, rooted by these trees. It’s the sacred space we create, hollowing out a timeless time each year to remember who we are. I don’t need a clock at camp. I don’t even need the sun to guess by. The hours are told in birdsong, in meals, in solitude and conversation and silent companionship. Camp is the time before the world begins.

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You can see how leaving that behind every year felt like death. At twenty years old – twenty-two, twenty-five – I stood in a river I didn’t know and it knocked me off my feet every day. How to go back to that, over and over, when my true home held me up, let me float? For a couple of years in there, I didn’t breathe outside my redwoods.

***

The first bird to sing in summer, just at dawn, is not the Swainson’s but the Varied thrush. It’s not a complex song, not charismatic like the Swainie’s or long and bubbling like a wren’s, but once heard, you won’t forget it.

Otherwise quiet and neither fond nor overly shy of human company, the Varied forages unmusically in the leaf litter most of the daylight hours. Its distinctive orange-and-charcoal feathers move like bars of light and shadow – are you sure it wasn’t an optical illusion?

I got lucky once, and watched one sing. Otherwise, how could I believe that strange purity of sound – a single, sustained chord, high in the world’s tallest trees as morning imagines the daytime forest into being?

Picture the last quiet hour before the rest of camp wakes up. Sunbeams strike slantwise through the understory. Redwoods – tall and straight and politely spaced, stately as a circle of standing stones – take the pale gold light and turn it over in their hands, send it shining through lichen-bandaged branches of tan oak. Near the ground, it rediscovers a last, threadbare sheet of mist, and pierces it to striated beauty.

If I could paint the voice of the Varied thrush, it would look like that.

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It got better, of course. Is that right: “of course?” Does time truly soften all things? It did this one.

And thank goodness, because I missed breathing. Portland and I – or maybe it’s the greater Columbia River Basin and I – are in it together for the long haul, and yes, it’s been a rough ride so far.

The seed was planted early, though, and I don’t wish to imagine the force that could root it out. The redwoods and my river give me solace in the way of nothing else I’ve known. This year I have needed solace more than ever since those early days.

I sent my final email and set up my last calendar reminder on a Thursday afternoon, desperate to leave behind this alien mess of a professional life I’ve created, entirely on purpose but who knew it would turn out to sap me so? I did, and I’ve kept it up anyway, which was the fourth or fifth mistake, I can’t keep track. The packing was easy. (It’s a pain in the ass.) I wasn’t preparing to visit my forest and my family. I was making ready to run.

***

Words often fail me, there. So I walk to the river. First morning this year, I matched my father’s footsteps – a rare hour together, no one else. At the old boat ramp that drops toward the summer footbridge, you emerge into the serpentine and sunlit curve of the river, walled to the west with rarest old-growth. We both know it from ancient days. Nothing needs to be said.

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To see it – and to notice – for the first time must be like birth: a shock and a wonder. In the days following, I shepherded several cousins, all on their first visits, and they seemed, indeed, struck. I suppose I look nonchalant, by contrast, but I am only inarticulate. I am greeting my own soul, falling into a physical wholeness I never spiritually leave.

If I do not often stop to wonder here, it is because I am always in wonder that this land, in some small way, accepts me, and offers the gift of its intricacies.

***

As summer peaks, the air in Portland begins to smell like camp. Stony tang of river, peak-ripe maple leaves, long-sliding sun on conifer tops – there must be a hundred ingredients, and I’m helpless before their alchemy. I know when it is nearly time. I will touch – not merely remember – my river.

On the flip side, it’s back to work, back to things done and left undone. If only I could forget.

Instead, I learn to re-inhabit a world that I recognize as beautiful, desirable, and to some extent, earned. I chose it; in important ways, I’ve shaped it. I like it.

It’s this time every year that I remember it is a shadow on the cave wall, and I am facing the wrong way. My perfect form, though – it cannot be held. It is the river through my fingers. At least it is real, and I can touch it. Once a year, as long as it lasts.

It’s like a magical gift given by my fairy godmother for my fifth birthday. Or maybe more like a geas.

***

On the river, morning is the best time to leave the sound of humanity behind. (Unless you come at night – a different tale altogether.) In camp, things may already be warming up. Early skateboarders and a few loud-talkers rattle over the rest of us, who quietly sip our coffee and listen to the thrushes call the day to order.

Out here, on a modestly sized yellow boulder, camp sounds remain behind the curtain of ancient trees. I sit level with the ruffled green water, watching the fish jump and the swallows flash. There is no one else in the world.

I can hear the swallows, too. They make a quick, heavy flutter every few minutes, like strumming the pages of an antiquated dictionary. They are dipping into the water, chasing their arthropod breakfasts. The sound might be them shaking the river from their feathers.

***

It hasn’t been this bad in years, leaving camp. The violence of separation – years after the last battle, after the victor’s prize at last of equanimity – surprises me. I knew I was unhappy. It took the contrast to show me just how much.

I want to go home – which is camp; which is also the person and the life I have built away from it, the life I loved only recently.

These are separate griefs, and one points up the other. It is always true that when I am not physically present here, a part of me is missing. It’s an old wound, the price I pay for love. It pulls every year when I leave, and plenty in between, and I live with it. It’s mine.

But the other – that points to something wrong.

I watch a Varied thrush in my mind’s eye. It’s ignoring me, but maybe it will sing. I feel my family circled up, cooking and laughing and fighting about things that matter so much less than our togetherness. I listen to the river’s song rise up, as the campground stills beneath the first stars.

Then I cease to think about these things, and awake, I remember I am broken.

I am broken? This year’s reunion has stripped my defences. Instead of the hectic success I’ve spent the past months building, all I can see is what a mess I’ve made. I’m exhausted and I barely know myself. I went to camp to heal, and I left it bleeding. I seem not to have known that understanding the wound comes first.

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There’s a high, slanted bridge not far from camp, which marks an excellent swimming hole. Fifty feet down, the water is still halfway made of light, green and gold inseparably entwined.

My cousins and I paddled upriver to the next beach, which doesn’t have a path. We brought three boats – not enough, so that two of us had to swim. We stayed all afternoon, in and out of the water, catching up in the shade beneath overhanging cliffs, picking through piles of multi-colored stones as smooth as eternity.

As if I was still there, I am watching one of our smallest members learn to navigate a small rapid. We’ve been down it together already, and he’s keen to try it alone. Nervous, and it takes him some time to get going. I sit alone at the base of the rapid in question, holding myself in place against the current, eyes and ears on the level of the green curling water. He picks his moment and shoots straight toward me, shouting excitement, golden-haired in the sunlight.

For anything else, I might hide here in my separate realm, alone and apart, until the last moment. I stand and make a triumphant fist, catch hold of his boat and offer a high five. We float into deep water, and I’m grinning like a nine-year-old, too.

***

I cannot actually be broken. I am loved, and I love deeply back. I have work to do, food to eat, a lake to circle on foot, and a nice-looking roof over my head. I have this place as retreat. Every piece of evidence I stack against my panicked perceptions says I’m over-reacting. And it is dangerous to assume your emotions are always right.

There is something here, though; truth laid open by the knife-blade beauty of this forest and this time and these people and all that can never replace them in my heart.

It’s a curious turn of phrase, to say that a place can get “in your blood,” but I accept it. The sound of the blood in my veins is the song of my river – what else would it be? From experience, I bleed red like everybody else. But when I am here I think, if I cut this vein in my arm, it would spill out serpentine green. Look: you can see it, under my skin.

It won’t show me the path, though. I’m still wriggling on a hook here of my own devising, with entirely non-mystical tools my best hope of getting free. I’d like to slice my arm and speak a prayer or a spell and watch the river boil up and rinse my pain and frustration clean. That’s a little crazy, though. What I have to work with is patience, will, compassion, time. That’s not to say that I own those first three, it’s to remind myself that I must find them.

But if there’s anything redwoods and a river and a family can teach, it’s time. So there is the gift, again. There is the grace I couldn’t shake if I tried, and the one that isn’t a big showy miracle, either.

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***

 

Midsummer

I walked my beat around the bay this morning. Its surface lay like thick and shining pewter, polished by the heat that threatens but hangs back, an undecided bully. The sun snagged behind silver-lined clouds, their shifting, tectonic forms bunched up like sea ice beginning to break. I am working a very great deal, and I feel like sea ice, too.

It isn’t alien to everyone: 12-hour days; the conflicting demands of two jobs; the hourless anarchy of freelance work, with emails pouring gleefully in, expecting an answer. I thrive on focus, routine. I did not know this until given this chance to learn the hard way.

Swallows above the water wove insect-patterned tapestries. A few male mallards slouched about, looking shabby and smeared, like they’d been out all night doing things they’d rather not admit to. I may be noticing eclipse plumage for the first time. How many opportunities have I missed to see this thing that happens – noticeably – every year, to ducks you can count on finding everywater?

Work – this problem of unrestrained abundance I have brought upon myself – is a second chance as well. I’ve had two jobs before, plus freelancing, a scant two months ago. It was unsustainable then. I was never this slow to learn a lesson in school.

In the moss-green shallows beneath a dreaming willow, a small blue heron poised, her mind on business. Dreamers do not snare fish. Except that this one stood motionless in a roil of indented tails. There must have been two dozen fish there, longer than my forearm and dense with muscle. They were squirming at something below those willow boughs, their tails erupting every minute or so to clatter about each other and the surface.

It may be a human failing to see ourselves in every unrelated thing. I’m a desperate fish today, twisting about for solutions to a problem I can only see in pieces. I’m a hunting heron, baffled by creatures that look right, except for this awkward problem of size and accessibility.

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I take these walks very early, deliberately starting work a half hour later than I could. The part of me that pines for profit, for prestige or production or whatever it is I’m seeking with these piled-on commitments, whines at the delay. But there is always something I am not doing. I force myself to leisure because I know I will dislike myself if I ever get used to its absence.

I’m outside again this afternoon, my work packed away indoors. It will keep, and if it doesn’t – well, I won’t. Intermittent wind hisses through the spear-points of my Douglas maple’s leaves. The heat is out there, where the sun heaves against this cooling river of breeze. Here in flickering leafshadow, today is utterly pleasant.

It smells like midsummer, like my family’s annual camping trip, organized in the Northwest woods for a decade and a half before I moved here as an adult. The peak of green, the in-between – I am homesick with it.

It is easier than losing my way in the forest, this disconnection from myself. I know this feeling, and I wish I didn’t: my spirit disjointed, and pieces wandering while I make a map of their exile. I make plans, sure. Behind them, I spend what I have missing everything I have ever loved, even if I haven’t lost it yet.

***