Lessons in the Soul and Moments of the Trail
So I’ve walked through all of Oregon, from the southern border with California up to Washington, through smoky skies and lava fields and endless forests, and past huge glacier-capped mountains, and then down down down to the Columbia River. I actually do not believe it, though the physical evidence is all around me. It does not feel real. I know, rationally, that I was dropped off south of Ashland in the middle of a soon-to-be fire closure, all dust and anxiety and first steps. And now I am an hour’s drive east of Portland, about to walk into the state I’ve grown up in, that grew me. But how did I get here again? Really, truly, step by step with these little legs? I can just… do that?
It’s been in parts: starting out solo, sleeping under the stars alone, a deer scaring me at midnight my first night, its soft nose rustling the side of my tent. Meeting my first thru-hikers and beginning to realize that my huge 1,000-mile section is just the very end of a journey that for many started in April or earlier. Learning that self-care out here is ridiculous in its simplicity: eat, and you can walk farther. Drink, or get dizzy. Sleep when it’s dark, wake when it’s not. Repeat as needed. Do not skip any of these steps! You have been warned.
And then, beginning to find my own rhythm, hike my own hike as they say. Learning the right way to pack my tent, what gear to drop immediately, shipping home everything unnecessary. Starting to understand that solitude is a facade out here – there will always be another hiker along in a few minutes, to share a laugh or a smile with, or to hide from when going to the bathroom. And that I won’t like all the other hikers, that all of the social structures of our society do replicate in the outdoors, that I will be a minority as a women to a degree I haven’t been before. Loneliness. Longing, for my everyone I love, for comfort, for a routine that stays the same.
And then, my brother Snail joined, and then my dear dear friend Salamander and finally the boyfriend, Brocolli. Hiking with someone else is a practice in patience, pushing me to let go of my safe-feeling patterns and habits and instead enjoy the company of people I love. Remembering that I have such little control over anything but myself, remembering that I have to accept that the world spins without me in mind. Remembering to laugh, and not take this all so seriously. Moments with these people are the highlights of my trip: the shared meals, laughter next to lakes, the farting and cozy mornings, and what it means to walk in silence for miles with someone else, simply taking it all in. The joy of seeing a familiar face after hours alone in my head. The safety of two tents, side by side, another voice in the night. Togetherness. An us, rather than just me.
And now entering Washington, I will hike soloish again, staying within reach of Snail but not in an everyday, every night kind of way. And so that section looms, a big emptiness, scary in the way I don’t know it yet. Off again, into my unknown.
But I am thinking about my last day hiking to get to this border. I night-hiked. Earlier in the afternoon I had said goodbye to Brocolli and as I walked the dirt trails and woodland forest north of Mount Hood, I cried and really, emotions out here are so heightened, so extreme. Two trail angels offered me fresh blueberries and cookies and their unprompted generosity, such a simple act of love, almost sent me into an embarrassing, tear-stained moment in front of strangers. But I began the process, the ritual, once again, one step in front of another, and soon the rhythm was back and I could just see the peak of Mount Adams in the distance. Deep breath, a new goal. I would move forward, was already moving forward. And in Cascade Locks, miles in the distance, my parents were coming to visit and a hotel room (my first indoor bed! in a month!) waited for me and so I pressed on at a pace and length that my knees and feet and hunger did not like.
As the sun went down I did not stop and soon the dark pressed down around me and all I could see was the spot of light of my headlamp on the dusty trail. This portion of forest all went up in flames last year in the Eagle Creek fire, and so in the outer edges of my light, burnt-up curling trees masqueraded as animals and monsters of all type and the thought of falling dead branches and mountain lions and all the fears we all have of the deepest darkest wild places surrounded me and why in the world was I not somewhere I felt safe, or at least in my tent? But one thing I am learning out here is oh, do I have a stubborn streak, and so I would not let a little fear stop me, no, and I walked and walked until almost 1 a.m., at which point the dark was almost speaking to me, my legs shaking, my breath ragged, and when I stumbled upon a hiker cowboy camping right on the trail, we both just about screamed. But every once and awhile the tree trunks around me would thin and I would look up into a star-filled sky full of whole other galaxies. Stars unto oblivion. Worlds I’ll never know, but could wonder at for a few minutes in a dehydrated haze. And eventually I could hear a train horn, and then see the dizzy-rush lights of the highway, and eventually the soft yellow ones of homes in the night. My sense of smell has increased (a strange story for another time), and I could smell the wetness of the river, the change in the dirt and plants around me in their new dampness. And step after step in the dark, one last one took me to a small road, with a dark SUV and a man in a headlamp. My dad. Waiting for me.
So Washington looms like dark forest in the night, but I’ll keep taking steps and, inevitably, they will take me somewhere, to new places that will feel unreal in their distance from where I am right now, from where I started. And there will be berries to eat along the way, and people to meet and others to avoid and streams to cross and hills to climb and crescent moons reflecting over crystalline water to stare at and tear up at. I can’t tell you if this journey makes me happy or sad; it’s both, always. It’s not about that. It’s about the moments and the learning and the ways I change and learn my own soul and experience this world in a different way. It’s about so much I can’t put in words, but will keep trying. Until next time,
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