Dear Reader

The goal of Trail-A-Week was 52 essays.

In August of 2015, I realized that I wouldn’t be a writer until I let my bones show. I’d already understood – gradually, after 24 years of doing it – that I am not fully living unless I am writing. But aside from a few (utterly nerve-wracking) published bits, I’ve written all those years for private consumption. Literally nobody but me has read most of my work. So I needed a way to get myself out there. Not so that everyone would notice, but so that anyone could. I wanted to get used to the idea that any person who wished to might engage with my work. Self-criticism will only get you so far; I wanted to hear others react, discuss, ignore, share – whatever in the world they might do with my offerings.

A writer also has deadlines to meet, and blocks to get over. I needed to see if I could do those things, so I set myself a test: one piece, every week, for a year.

I’ve tried many formats, and I thought I was strongest, happiest, had the best chance of completing my thoughts, with the essay. But I knew I’d be anxious if I planned to write one randomly every week. Before I can let go and create, I need structure – a theme or a goal, an arbitrary constraint that focuses my distractible thoughts. I can’t even remember how the light dawned, it seems so obvious now. Of course I should write about walking. It’s the other thing I need, to be myself.

If you’ve been here before today, you’ve seen my 52nd essay. I reached my goal, and Trail-A-Week is over.

When I started, I was describing my journeys on named hiking trails in my Pacific Northwest. By the end, I’d largely abandoned trail description in favor of writing about landscape in a larger way: how it enters and how it changes the mind, how I saw myself mirrored or challenged or created in it, what is like to be human in specific landscapes. This is what I’ve enjoyed the most about this project: trying to figure out what it feels like, what it means, to be a person in a place.

I have no easy answers. I do have some ideas about what to do with all this figuring, but before I share those, they need a little work. And I’ll keep writing new things; do expect this site to grow, but perhaps not at the rate of Trail-A-Week.

Meantime, dear reader, I still want to hear what you think. Did you have a favorite essay? Which ones didn’t work for you? If you read multiple pieces, what themes did you see emerging, and did they interest you? Which should I explore further? What spoke to you, and what turned you off? What are these essays? If you were me, what would you do with them? If you have a few minutes to share your thoughts and critiques, again or for the first time, I’ll be grateful.

As I am already. Because my other favorite thing about this project is the generosity of my friends, family, and some total strangers who hiked, read, and engaged with me this past year.

Thank you for walking beside me.



The River at Dawn

It will be a long day indoors. Before the sun shakes out its hot wool blanket over the entire Northwest, I am risen to seek what fresh air may be found.

In the 5am dark, we drive east on a faint blue path, a crack of light between black, enclosing trees. Just inside the borders of the Mt. Hood National Forest, we pull up by the side of the Clackamas River. Pink mare’s tails brush the sky, sweeping a scent like celery on the wind. We’re not alone here – on the way in, we’ve seen a dozen silent tents beside the river. But if I close my eyes, we are the only two, standing inside the river’s rolling rush.


The trail is a cool benediction in the greylight. It’s flat at first, and wide enough to share. Out on a side path, the breeze glides up from the water, flaps its wings at woods’ edge, ruffles the ferns. Whitewater rattles below, heard long before seen. Twenty steps away, I feel indoors. Venerable air exhales slowly from the forest floor. River-breeze and water-shout flutter past the threshold, excitement muffled by timber walls.  

Neither width nor grade is bound to last. In the few miles we traverse, we learn the Clackamas River Trail’s essential character: it is made for solitude, and quiet. In high summer, the narrow path throngs with fireweed and Queen Anne’s lace at shoulder-height, thimbleberries brush my waist, and along a weeping wall, the generous hands of maidenhair ferns reach out to cup my elbow in a slippery spot. The track climbs continually, either up or down, winding along the bouldery face of the hill before plunging in three quick switchbacks to the water. The forest is open; there’s been a burn here in the past few years. Tree trunks are scarred black, some have fallen. Small slides crumble down the steeps. Grabby poison oak, already crimsoning toward fall, snags my ankles. My footing demands my full attention.


The coming warmth is like a stormfront on its way – I can smell it, but it has not broken here. Its hot grass scent gallops in on a wind as cool as the Clackamas River itself, and I have to stop (poison oak, slides) to enjoy it, plant myself in its path and breathe it in. On the slope west, the sun pours gold on the close-ranked conifers. I don’t walk very far, sometimes. I get stuck watching the day slide down from high ridges.

The river arrests my progress, too. I need so much to watch it, to listen, that I give up standing and find a seat for the concert, among tumbled rocks open to the sky. An entire choir bells out around me: tenor voice of a white rapid upstream, alto riffle counterpoint below my moss-cluttered outcrop. Occasional bass notes ring out and then swallow themselves whole – stones, perhaps, turning over underwater.


The water lies in shade, but the sunstruck hills above reflect autumn-bronze. I watch the sweep of ruffled river and forest edge, and struggle for the names of things. The movement of wind over grey-green water has no special word I know. Nor does the way unbroken riffles flake into curious angular facets, like someone knapping obsidian in liquid form. Nor does the wind itself: its weight, its flavor, its direction must mark it something distinct from our generic word wind. But I cannot find it. The only redress I can make is to cease description, to give myself over and observe.


There is pleasure in moving steadily along this rolling trail, pushing up and picking downwards, shifting my gaze in a loose rhythm from boots to slope to path to river and back. I’m listening to my breath and the braided streams of my thought; conversation here is a nuisance to maintain.

But today I am curiously tired, and the turnfoot talus tumbled across the path encourages me to be still and watch instead. There are nearly 16 miles of there-and-back-again for the walking, and I barely recognize the woman who shrugs her shoulders and turns around at two miles out. I do forgive her, though. Weekday life gives and it takes; mine has taken enormous amounts of energy of late. What’s left has pushed me upstream this morning, swimming against a current of tricky footing, latent warm air, and this strange lassitude that speaks to me so eloquently of rest, I cannot even be impatient with it.

I go out to the wild to put one foot in front of the other. And sometimes I learn that’s not what I’m doing out here at all. Some days, the gift I can accept from a wild place is not the longwalk I think I want. It’s the scented wind on a high path, requiring my stillness.



The Clackamas River Trail runs between two campgrounds called Fish Creek and Indian Henry. You’ll find both on OR 224, out past Estacada into the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. It’s just under 8 miles one way, a moderately difficult hike with some careful walking required on narrow and crumbling path. There is a $5 fee to park at Fish Creek; your Northwest Forest Pass will also pay your way.




Familiar Things

At last, a summer that doesn’t blister the skin. We have our hot days, but they come and they go. A weekend prickly with white-blue heat, a few sweater-cool mornings, then a whole week of those bell-curved Goldilocks days when you never want to be indoors. I’d almost forgotten what it’s like, these past four drought-dogged summers. In August now, I feel safe giving thanks for the most normal hot season we’ve had in years.

Not including the occasional precipitation, the back-patio-sitting has been particularly fine. I’m sure I ought to be out walking, but there’s something about summer and sitting on the porch. I always have a book, as often closed as open. There’s occupation in the shifting patterns of leaf and cloud and sun, the breeze-stirred shadows playing over my skin. And wildlife watching has the lazy woman’s advantage – the animals come to me.


A ragged-edged squirrel spends his afternoons foraging in my maple tree. Most of the time he hunts obliviously over my head, but every so often a turned page or a cat’s tail talking in the window startles him to battle frenzy. For a tense few minutes, he bulks up and squares off and chitters forth a murderous stream of consciousness. My favorite part is watching him visibly lose interest, turning away suddenly to his maple seeds. He remembers several times a day there’s a chip on his shoulder, but he just can’t hold that grudge.

The ospreys that nest across the street have small ones, and they spend most of their time either fishing for or shouting at their young. Either way, it’s not a quiet process: when I can’t see them, I can hear them. As long as they swoop and screech from my Doug firs during daylight hours, I love their boisterous family dynamics. At 3am I curse them as though they were robins.

Those last have gone mostly silent – for which I am willing, finally, to praise them – but towhees still shrill from the shadows of the sprawled rhododendron at patio’s edge. Breeds of finch I can’t yet tell apart hop aggressively from cover across open ground laced with dry roots. I think of prehistoric raptors, and I’m grateful for the luxury to imagine these razor-edged passerines are cute.


On another porch, a few weeks back, I watched a finch land on the lip of a hanging basket, then thread her way through swollen stems of Angel-wing begonia. (You can tell it’s someone else’s porch because I couldn’t grow an Angel-wing begonia to save my life.) A storm of frantic peeping swirled up from the dimness, abruptly silenced when Mama Finch reappeared and headed out to work again. I watched her coming and going – 20 minutes, then 35, between visits – before I stood on a chair to peer through the scarlet blossoms at her young.

I might never have seen them if they hadn’t been so hungry. Skinny and dirt-colored little things, they possessed a dozen feathers between them, just enough to make them look very much like potting soil. Four heads, though, telescoped automatically upward as the branches parted, like paper nestlings in a children’s pop-up book. Triangular beaks stretched wide for sustenance. Those ravenous beaks are huge and yellow, clearly the most important facial feature at this stage. Their owners cut the peeping almost instantly – you’re not my mother – and melted silently back into the soil.

That was July. The begonias are still weeping crimson blooms, but the mother finch has done her job, and her brood is fledged and flown.

If afternoons are for porch-sitting, early mornings are the best for summer strolls. By the bay, the resident Canada geese still trail teenagers, but the lines between child and adult blur more each week. The young geese are slightly smaller than their parents, with necks a soft chocolate brown shading into their breast feathers, instead of cut-crisp black. The mallards have grown up, too, with one exception: just yesterday, I spotted a single duckling still golden-brown and fluffy, tearing about in mad pursuit of something only she knew. Her extended family dabbled all around, unconcerned.

Summer birdwatching is less exotic than winter. The lake at Crystal Springs, flocked with hundreds of gabbling waterfowl in January, is a poverty of ducks now, measured in both diversity and sheer numbers. Only the resident mallards hold court among the round-humped rocks beneath the entrance bridge, between willow-fingers trailing in the shallows. I rarely return in the warm season, but I’m glad I broke my routine, wandering slowly with my mother through the early morning garden. The ducks aren’t advertising. But now I know what to look for, their world is full of things I’ve never seen.


The furtive miracle of eclipse, for example. I learned of it only months ago, and here it is in the flesh and feathers: a summer gathering comprising about half male and half female mallards – yet they all look the same. Or not quite the same: up close, males have muddy yellow bills and plumage blurred and tattered. The ladies look much as they always do: neat orange bills, bodies distinctly shingled in brown and cream. I needed a second look to confirm, and then I stood beside myself with the thrill of discovery. I’ve simply never noticed a drake without his iridescent headdress and grey and white suiting, yet here were dozens in their summer casuals, dabbling under the radar. A hundred yards on, a family of wood ducks slipped from the cover of the cattails. I looked twice and sure enough: the owners of those piercing orange eyes were males, sporting the understated grey mohawks of eclipse plumage.

The miracle here is how I never saw this fact of nature until I had a name to call it down. The idea that names are power informs many a fantasy novel. Its application in the realist fiction of our own lives is less obvious, if no less dramatic, and played out on a smaller, daily scale. Names are a key to the senses. A kayak instructor once pointed out the clattering of a kingfisher, a sound I’d certainly heard but never trained my hearing on. Now my river mornings are alive with stocky, point-beaked birds eyeing slippery bodies below – though often enough I never see them.

I like the phenomenon of eclipse for the precision of its naming as well. To eclipse is to overshadow, and this is exactly what this change of feathers does to male ducks. Briefly, during their post-parental molt, they cannot fly, and our human speculation is that their less exultant non-breeding plumage helps them hide from predators during these summer weeks. I wonder if it’s a welcome break for them, or a time of flightless worry.

I stumble on this sort of information as often as I seek it out. Every time, my map of the natural world draws new lines, etch-a-sketch style, and slowly – or sometimes startlingly – colors them in. It’s an addictive sensation. I can’t force it – which is maybe a good thing for any activity I’m willing to bestow such an adjective upon.

The most fledgling of naturalists, I am trying to teach myself to ask better questions of my senses. I’ll be here on the porch for months yet: watching and listening, reading and researching, every so often, unfocused and unnaming. Between these things, I learn more of the world than only myself. Though it is impossible to claim that my self is not the point: it is I who will carry these observations forward, shaping them, with everything else I learn, into a life of familiar things.

To notice with care is a skill I admire in others. It is hard for me to practice with humans; I’m distracted by the complex emotional screens we erect around every conversation. Ducks, squirrels, moss, and rhododendrons do not filter themselves – that I know of – and it is not a stretch to respond in kind. Disinterested intimacy flows easier. It’s beginner practice for the complexities of attention to my own species, possibly; also a simplified pursuit with its own harvest of familiar joys. I find, either way, the greatest wonder in the things I thought I already knew.


A Good Place

We have journeyed to an island where the beauty of the visible – not small – is eclipsed by the enchantment of fragrance. I am safer than Odysseus ever was – and anyway my Penelope is here with me – but I might be tempted to believe unlikely and mysterious powers dwell in a place so sublimely, so unexpectedly scented.


The island is a peninsula, in truth. It floats cradled by the Columbia River, whose coursing currents reveal nothing below a surface the quenching depth of unpolished greenstone. On either side, the maple- and fir-clad massifs of the Western Gorge shoulder about, protective, their slopes a misty morning blue. This land between them all lies flat and drowsing, open to the dreaming of the sky.

The morning is an early one, cool and fresh the way I treasure Northwest summers in my memory, when winter rains birth halfway frozen mud, or blue skies pitilessly proffer the bread-oven heat of the past few days. At the eastern end of the sky, the mountains cup a struck match between them, kindling yellow sunshine we won’t see for hours yet in the west. High up, light slips through in silver shafts. Ospreys greet it with cries of joy – or possibly it is their fish breakfasts they are celebrating.

Eyes on the sky, we have trodden on a patch of flowers before we can stop. They are – they were – perhaps 5 inches tall: improbable towers built of powder-pink puffballs stacked one atop the others. They spring back up behind us, releasing the cool scent of peppermint. Soon we notice them everywhere, miniature and fantastically sculpted, like we’re walking in a Dr. Suess tale. Their fragrance, carried on the river-stirred breeze, cannot make up its mind to calm or enliven; instead it does both at once. It’s the nearest thing to a hot cup of coffee since I gave up that particular contradiction.


No human-habituated land in the Northwest escapes the Himalayan blackberry, and always the blackberry escapes us. This most pernicious of plants makes partial apology by way of prolific sweet fruits in July and August, and this island has the sweetest I’ve tasted all summer. I keep stopping to sample and exclaim, and soon I am talking to myself; Jeremiah has wandered on without me, patiently pausing the conversation.

Not all the berries are still sweet; entering the trees near the island’s tip, we’re suddenly in a wine cellar. The heady pleasure of fermenting fruit recalls friendship and lazy afternoons, and, for me, another life. The scent carries a smile between us. Lewis and Clark called this place Strawberry Island, but the jealous blackberry has colonized that too.


I cannot pick apart the fragrances of the wildflowers tangled all about. Sweet pea and Queen Anne’s lace and tansy and thistle grow in exuberant clouds along the wide mowed paths, their joined breaths an untranslatable song of joyful purpose. No fans of the fray, chicory flowers on calf-high stalks rise at decorous distances through the drying meadows: milky, marble blue on the silken brown of toasted bread. Were this morning’s sky pale instead, and clear, this field would find its mirror.  


In a landscape that interests me, I cannot stop thinking of words to remember it by. I seek among the limited structures of language for the way to convey a color or a scent. I put names to the animals and plants I know, and describe those I do not so that I may discover them. It is a form of respectful greeting, but its opposite may be one, too, and that I have trouble practicing. Wendell Berry: “To be quiet, even wordless, in a good place is a better gift than poetry.” Prose, too.

At the western tip of this scratch-and-sniff poem of an island, we pause beside the ruffling river. Wind rattles the cottonwoods, willows toss their heads under a high gray sky. I try to let this go and follow Berry. I loose my language and only hear, only see, only smell. Not interpret. Not speak.

I come back to myself understanding that I have forgotten, for a moment, where I am. This is how I know I have succeeded, however briefly. In the unnaming, a granted gift of merging.

This is a good place, well met.



My good place is called Hamilton Island, these days. About 40 minutes east of Portland/Vancouver on the Washington side, it contains the open meadows and river banks described, a pleasant forest, a historic site as interesting for what it leaves out as what it describes, a fine prospect on the massive and fascinating Bonneville Dam, and glorious Gorge views – if you don’t mind your views looking up. Several miles of mostly flat trails, paved and unpaved, wind around the entire place, including the small community of North Bonneville. There are no fees or permits required to park.

Between Two Tides

It’s far too hot to hike. Portland is having one of its moderately awful summer heat waves, and although it’s a perfectly good Wednesday afternoon and I’m restless, at least 15 Fahrenheit degrees bristle between me and a pleasant stroll around the bay.

So I’ll sit here inside where it’s cool, and sip another glass of this rich, briny white wine. It’s from a region called Entre-Deux-Mers, which is French for Can’t-Go-Wrong. An Entre-Deux-Mers occupies one of those cool green bottles I can purchase at random without worry, without the slightest knowledge of who made it or what year the grapes matured. I love a wine that makes itself so easy to select.

In fact, the name means “between two tides. Although literally it means “between two seas.” Both of the “seas” in question are tidal areas of a large river though, so I prefer the first translation. One source argues that the name derives from the French word for tide instead of that for sea, but I don’t know enough French to confirm or deny. Here’s what I know: between two tides is exactly where I stand.


Midsummers each year, I wade and swim and play with my family in “my” river, a serpentine-green vein of pure memory gold flowing from the Klamath mountains to the California coastline. It’s “mine” because I grew up loving it; I don’t remember life without its tides singing in my blood. Their version of an ebb is when I manage not to miss my homing place for a few days at a time. It’s just after I leave each year that their spring tide hits: the difference between presence and absence echoes and magnifies my emotional life for hours, days, or if we’re talking about this year, weeks.


I live many hours by car north of my river. And three minutes on foot from another. The Willamette River, with Portland, Oregon piled on either side, has defined my daily life at least as much as my own inner tide. I enjoy its weather-moderating effects, and track its seasonal surges. I cross the street to greet it nearly every day. I did that this morning at sunrise, in the cool of the day. I launch a kayak into the Willamette sometimes, but rarely do I wade or swim. We’re not familiar enough for that.

Several times now, it’s come out of my mouth out of season: “I think I’ll walk down to my river.” The first time, I didn’t even notice right off. Now I’m wise to it. The Willamette wants to flow in my veins, too, perhaps. Is there room? Are we serious about each other? If I am home here, always and all the way, will I begin to lose the other?



I’m recently free of a deeply exhausting professional situation. It’s too tiring to explain, so I use shorthand: it was The Multijob. Part Two. Freedom from this self-made ball and chain is heaven – I think. In truth it’s hard to be sure: I haven’t quite absorbed that extra hours exist in the day. Nearly every day!

Yesterday Jeremiah sent me a text while I was at work. He does that every day, but for the past few months it’s been grocery requests and reminders of love – just the necessaries. This one was different, not least because it sparked a 5 minute conversation, during which I made a joke. I can tell by his reaction how normal that isn’t: “Holy shit, you’re back!”

He couldn’t see it, but I was beaming in reply. Right then, I cracked the code. I typed back: “I’m fun again!”

After work, I opened my personal laptop and caught up with an out-of-state friend on Facebook. That’s nothing you’d have seen me doing on the regular for the past half a year. Then I emailed another friend about the camping plans we’ve been talking vague circles around. I texted two more, just to talk about how I’m reading Hamilton: The Revolution, and how much we all love that musical. For the first time in months, I didn’t feel harassed by the need to do these things. They didn’t feel like a need; they felt like something I could do to touch base with the people I love.

“I’m fun again” turns out to mean something more precise. A better translation is “I have space in my heart to enjoy the existence of others.” And to contribute to it. I’ve been a taker most of this year – contributing money to my household and building my career, sure, but washing up at the end of every day with little left to spend on the human relationships that make life what it ought to be. That’s not a river I want to ride anymore.

This kind of time used to be normal; now it’s a luxury. Though I can already feel it sliding into routine. I want to keep it wrapped up, a gift I can wonder at, and steer by the miracle of its being. But of course you have to open your gifts, or you miss the other half of the point.


The other river in the earth-cradle that holds Portland lends itself so easily to superlatives, you stop noticing when people use them. The mighty Columbia absorbs all praise of her grandeur with serene indifference. Humans standing on her banks or riding her swells or crossing her on the 205 bridge can hardly help themselves. If they could, I’d worry maybe they’re too deeply freighted with their version of The Multijob.

Between them, the Columbia and the Willamette define this region in every imaginable way. They anchored the first people here, offering food and transportation, and they continue that gift today. Their breath cools our mornings. Our roads and freeways trace their courses, and their most recent names adorn businesses and non-profit organizations across the metro. Literally between them, you’ll find half of Portland. This close to their mouths, they’re both tidal, a pull you can feel subtly from a kayak, mainly when you turn around and stop paddling against it.


As I have done to the rest of my friends, I’ve neglected our rivers these past months. We’ve seen each other – a carefully planned Saturday morning hike, fiercely guarded dawn walks on weekdays – but I’ve been so in need of them on those visits that I forgot they need me too. Of course they don’t, in the sense that they’ll outlive us all, but in this age of human dominance, isn’t it right to choose our actions with those we may hurt in mind?

I try to offer our rivers the gift of recognition: that they are people, too, and I see them. It’s a hard thought to hold. Easy when you’re stunned by their beauty; water through clumsy fingers when you’re fighting the day as it comes. Other than offering my work on the land that surrounds them, I don’t really know how to hold it. If you know, tell me. Tell everyone.


If you’ve ever hiked an area without cleared trails, you’ll hear what I’m about to say in your gut. Finding a path is hard work. Especially one back to where you should have been going in the first place.

I once took the wrong trail several miles into the Eastern Sierra. My father and I had started a bit late in the day, but we weren’t going far; noon was alright to lock the car and edge into the wilderness. We understood our error too late for an easy afternoon in camp. I glanced at the sun, immovable except in the appointed direction. I hitched my pack for a long haul, at speed.

Dad set his pack down. With his eyes, he quizzed the map and then the sun, then the landscape, with measured deliberation. Then he pointed east, and poked the map in my direction. “If we go that way about 100 yards, we’ll strike this trail. See?” I saw the neat dashes on the map, but the territory it told lay invisible on the other side of untracked forest. He was offering something like a miracle to me in that moment: miles and hours less than my out-of-shape back had resigned itself to walking only moments ago. I was dubious, but unwilling to call it out. One hundred yards doesn’t sound far – until you’re wayfinding in a wild wooded mountain range.

Dad’s a Navy-trained navigator, though; other folks have weathered riskier situations on his say-so. I’d have been hopelessly lost without the path to guide me, but I had a human compass.  We struck the trail where he said we would. We made it to camp with hours to spare.

I have needed my father to find my way through this present time of trial as well. My father, my mother, my husband, my extended family and my dearest friends. Like the rivers, they cradle me, and like the rivers, I have neglected them for months in my own struggle. Like the rivers, they have given without reserve, and never asked of me more than I could return.

It’s harder than it sounds, letting go of a lifestyle you’ve created. Mine offered what? – power, maybe. Earning power, and the pure validation of being wanted for what I could do. So I thought “is it really so bad?” – even when I knew it had eaten me alive.

There are better paths to the person I want to be. As I navigate back to myself, my overgrown creation pulls at my legs, sucking the sand beneath my feet and leaving me unsteady in my course. The way home is densely wooded, and the choosing of the path is my own. But I have so many compasses to steer by.