R Solo: Lightning Storms on the Benson Plateau

I’ve been away – or, at least, away from the woods, my woods – for a while: moving and visiting family and working and doing all the small things that threaten to fill life entirely if you don’t pay close enough attention. It’s been too long since I spent a day just wandering around the trees and streams. I was just in the Wisconsin North Woods last week, but they felt strange to me, like when you put a shirt on backwards. I went for a walk, and it just seemed wrong. Okay, not exactly wrong: just not mine. Those woods are for ATVs and snowmobiles, boat docks and tourist lodges, fishermen and hunters, churches and American flags. They’re beautiful, in their way, but they’re just not mine. It made me miss home.

Flying back with my face pressed against the window, I watched the scenery change from planes pockmarked with shallow lakes to desert to bald buttes and finally home: green hills, canyons, creeks, the Columbia Gorge. When I was a kid and we’d fly west, all the hills seemed anonymous – just little bumps no one would bother naming. But now I know them all: the antennas on top of Mount Defiance; the small lakes along Nick Eaton Ridge; Wahtum Lake in its bowl; Tomlike Mountain’s bald ridge; Tanner Butte watching over Eagle Creek; Bull Run Lake, looking beautiful and forbidden; canyons twisting to Crown Point.

I’d been thinking about hiking on Mount Hood the day after I got back, but the forecast said thunder, so instead I went for a walk in the Gorge. I sometimes worry that I’m too much of a fair-weather hiker – I complain extravagantly at the first sign of light drizzle – so it was also a good way to get used to weather I (used to) hate in a place I (still) love.

I slept in and got a late start, around noon. The plan was to take the PCT from Cascade Locks south to Herman Creek and up to the Benson Plateau, futz around the Plateau for a while, come down the Ruckel Creek trail toward Eagle Creek, then take Trail 400 back over to Cascade Locks. My map had the distance around 16 miles, but, as usual, with all my wandering it ended up being a bit longer: around 24 miles, with a little over 7000 (!) feet elevation gain. I’m walking funny today.

It was pretty sunny starting out, with the powerline meadows full of allergy flowers.


Bridge over Dry Creek on the PCT.


Rockslide meadows.


I met a bunch of northbound PCT hikers, who were heading into Cascade Locks to resupply and maybe spend a night in town. One woman had started at the Mexico border in late May, which means she’d been walking an average of 30 miles a day, everyday, for two and a half months. She’d only taken two zero days, one in Yosemite and one in Crater Lake. When I asked her how she did it, she sort of shrugged, and said something like “30 miles is only long if you think you can only walk 10. If you think you can walk 50, it’s a halfday.” I’ve been thinking about that today, as I limp around the apartment after walking a few miles less than her daily average.

I started hearing thunder and feeling small raindrops just before the Herman Creek Pinnacles.


The light was really weird for the rest of the day. You’ll have to excuse the sort of shitty pictures. Here’s the best of the ten pictures I tried to take of PCT Falls.


By now the storm was pretty close, so I jogged through the rockslide areas, not wanting to be the tallest thing around, just in case lightning came to visit.


And then it was basically on top of me. The trail from the Herman Creek cutoff up to the Benson Plateau is almost all tree covered, so I was never all that freaked out, but I was definitely on guard. Here’s the edge of the storm, as it passed into Washington.


And again, directly overhead, from just before Teakettle Spring.


I was counting the time between lightning flash and thunder to gauge how far away it was. It got to the point that the lightning and thunder were consistently only a second or two apart, and I decided to sit down in a covered clearing to wait things out. I think it passed right over me. At one point, I saw a tree, maybe a quarter mile away, get hit with lightning and just fall into pieces, as though they were already cut and loosely glued together, just waiting for this to happen. It sounded like breaking glass.

When the worst of the storm passed, I felt lucky. In a bunch of ways.

I was so relieved that it was over. I spent the next few miles signing along to this Iron & Wine song on repeat, and jogging through the friendly forest up to the Benson Plateau. I’d lost some time waiting out the storm, but still spent an hour taking the long way through, saying hello to trails I’d only ever seen in March, when they were still under snow.



And August.


I eventually hit Ruckel Creek, and followed it down to Hunter’s Camp, where I had a quick lunch with my feet in the water, feeling for all the world as though there was absolutely no place I’d rather be.



The view from lunch.


Then it was just a pleasant evening stroll down Ruckel Creek, with its steep trail and hanging meadows, as familiar now as the road that runs past our house. I fell a few times when things got too slick, but it didn’t matter. For some reason the mud and streams running down the trail just made me laugh.


After a while I hit the hanging meadows, where I always call KRock and tell her I’ll be late.


These little flowers were everywhere.


Then the river came back. Hello, old friend!


And the allergy flowers and powerlines.



After a couple switchbacks and a small washout I hit the Old Highway, now just a trail, which would take me back to Cascade Locks.


I got back to the car around eight, soaking wet with shaky legs but happy. Before getting in, I went to the trailhead bathroom to clean up. Looking in the scuffed mirror as I washed mud and a little blood off my legs, I looked more like myself – or what I hope myself to be – than I have in a while. I love those woods. Even in the rain. A couple years ago I read this gorgeous book, which said that maybe love is a certain way of seeing, of looking closely enough to see the value in something or someone that other people might miss. Maybe what it means that these are my woods, that I love them, that they make me into me, is that I care enough to look for their small wonders: the way storms pass through their canyons; the trail signs, covered in lichen; the way rain and snow collect on leaves and under trees and always seem deepest in the middles of trails; the old roads and remnants; the ridgelines, visible even from an airplane on the way back home.

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