I turned thirty this weekend, and to celebrate I headed out on the longest hike I’ve ever done: up from the Herman Creek campground to Nick Eaton Ridge, on the ridge to Greenpoint Mountain, on Rainy Wahtum Trail following Waucoma Ridge to the Anthill Trail, Tomlike Mountain, and Chinidere Mountain, down Eagle Creek, and finally back to the car on the PCT. All in all it came to somewhere between 33 and 36 miles.
My alarm goes off at 5:30 and my stomach hurts with sleeplessness and I’m worried about walking as far as I’ve planned to walk and why the hell am I doing this anyway. But I blearily get up, too tired to change plans, kiss Krista on the top of her head, and drive an hour to Cascade Locks in the still pre-dawn dark. The freeway’s filled with trucks. Big trucks with big lights hauling rail cars east. I think about arteries and my headache.
There’s broken glass in the parking lot when I get there but no cars – break-ins are terrible in the Gorge. I load everything, everything from the car into my pack. The thing must weigh thirty pounds. People say you pack your fears.
I put on my headlamp and stumble onto the trail and the first few switchbacks. Then an old railroad grade for a mile just as light starts to seep through the forest. They built this path in the 1890s, first to take trees, then quarry stone from the side of the mountain to build Cascade Locks. There are still old bits of track and steel rope if you know where to look. And the trail’s still wide and easy. I stop for a second to take off my headlamp and sit where the old road once switched back toward Wyeth. I put on headphones and listen to a podcast about the history of synthesizers. They’re talking about Bob Moog, ladder filters, control voltage sequencers that couldn’t quantize to twelve-tone pitch so everything sounded a little off. Or at least a little homemade.
I turn off Herman Creek at the Nick Eaton cutoff and it’s like exiting the freeway into a small town. The trail’s immediately steep, “like a homesick angel.” A lot of the steeper trails in the Gorge were first built by shepherds who’d leave their flocks at the high elevation, then cut their ways back to town by the most direct route. They were hardier stock than I am.
Just as the sun rises I reach a viewpoint, maybe 2000 feet up, overlooking the Cascade Locks and the river. I think about bits of the mountain down there underwater, and about the trains that have been moving parts of the world from one place to another for centuries now. The dam there is older than the trees I’m standing in. It might be older than this hillside too.
The other direction, the direction I’m walking, is the Hatfield Wilderness. Mark Hatfield, a once Governor and Senator from Oregon, was instrumental in creating the Gorge National Scenic Area. He was also a lifelong, vocal supporter of the timber industry. The Wilderness may be his, but so are the clear cuts that surround it. Most of what I see was saved not through government planning but because it was simply too hard to cut down. All the old growth in this area is like that – trees that were too expensive to kill.
It takes me an hour to walk the two miles up to the ridge proper, where the trail flattens for a moment before ascending another few thousand feet as the hills fall on either side. I switch to a podcast about technology in general. The first story is about a man who kept a computer strapped to himself for decades – he still has it on – to allow him to retrieve information more efficiently. He works for Google now. The last story is about a couple’s phone connection breaking, just as they decide to split up. I’m climbing over and under trees, using my hands up hills, and now, for the first time today, feeling happy to be out.
The ridge eventually gives way to a long plateau and the trail straightens through endless beargrass meadows. It’s flat, easy walking. My brain turns off for a few miles. It pops back on for a moment to remind me about breakfast and coffee, then goes back to sleep, albeit a more fitful one now, full of bagel dreams. It’s like walking on a treadmill, so I look down at my trail runners instead, try to make rhythms with my shoes and poles.
There’s a small spot of snow, the trail slightly steepens, and suddenly I’m at the summit of Green Point Mountain. Not a real mountain, exactly – just a high point on Green Point Ridge – but a fitting place for breakfast all the same. I take off my shoes and dangle my feet off a rocky cliff, pointing my toes first at Mount Defiance, then at Mount Hood, then at nothing in particular off in the middle distance, as I lie back, too quickly chewing my breakfast. No one’s been up here for a while. The snow’s without footprints. There are green shoots in the summit clearing.
My spirits lifted by breakfast, and maybe more to the point the liter of coffee I’ve brought along, I pack up quickly and jaunt down to the old Rainy Wahtum road grade. Where the trail joins the road, there’s an old abandoned World War II signal hut. I wish I knew more about these – especially why you’d put one in the middle of nowhere.
I jog a couple more miles down the road, along the Waucoma Ridge. The road here follows very close to the top of the ridge, through new trees and small patches of old snow, with the occasional clearing affording views east, toward Hood River. The ridge and road mark the eastern wilderness boundary here. Further east, it’s all developed. I have an old USGS map that shows a quarry down there – “Mount Defiance Quarry” – but all I can see now are twisting logging roads and stripped hillsides.
Turning a corner, I run – almost literally – into the first people I’ve seen all day: a nice couple in jeans who seem a touch unsure of where they are. Apparently they’ve parked somewhere below Wahtum Lake, but since just kinda gone wandering. They ask what’s ahead, and I show them my map, in which they seem very interested. I tell them about the signal hut and the views of Hood. There’s an awkward silence, filled with the woman starting at the man in a “Why don’t we have a map like that?” sort of way, and I figure it’s time to go. I wish them a happy hike, and they wish me a safe one. She emphasizes “safe,” like aural italics.
The ridge road trail officially ends at a junction with the delightfully named Anthill Trail, which runs from Wahtum Lake to Herman Creek. I think the road keeps going – it used to stay on the ridge all the way to the lake – but I take a right and head towards Herman Creek and Tomlike Mountain. The Anthill Trail’s short, maybe a quarter mile, and almost immediately I’m on the Herman Creek Trail at the base of Tomlike. There used to be an official trail up to the top of Tomlike – 406G or something – but it hasn’t been maintained in decades, and has degenerated into a series of braided, ducking paths through the brush. Someone’s covered the trees with orange flagging tape, which I take down as I walk. There are a a few cairns, and the way is obvious enough without neon pointers.
As I climb there are views back to Mud Lake, a small mosquito pond in a cirque beneath a curve in the Waucoma Ridge.
Tomlike Mountain is probably my favorite place in the Gorge. In summer – and now in February, because winter is apparently now summer too – the slopes are covered with juniper. As I walk it smells like gin. There’s a little scrambling to get to the summit proper, but nothing too bad. I put the Beach Boys on my headphones and imagine the hills as waves.
From the top there are views from Rainier to Hood. I think of the Olympics with Krista last May, having cocktail hour on a ridge all of our own. And then of the Olympics again with my dad a few months later. I like hiking alone – I can listen to music, go my own speed, jog if I feel like it, take too many breaks – but I like people to be there when I get where I’m going. Maybe there’s a metaphor there somewhere.
There’s no snow up top. This all should be covered by several feet this time of year, but the ridge is totally bare. I sit down for lunch at the only small patch I can see. It seems almost too precious to touch, but I take a little snow to make a slushy adult beverage – bourbon, snow, and a couple juniper berries – and stare across the valleys.
Tomlike Mountain is named after George Tomileck Chinidere, also known (I presume mostly to white people) as “Indian George.” He was the last reigning chief of the Wasco Tribe, which is now split between the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation in Washington. He was born at some point in the 1810s near the Dalles, and died in June 1917 in Hood River, hit by a train. The Portland Journal published an obituary:
Indian George Tomileck Chinidere, reputed to the the oldest Indian of the Columbia River tribe and said to be 100 years old, was found dead near this city Sunday morning beside the railroad track of the O.W.R.N [Oregon-Washington Railroad and Navigation Company, now part of Union Pacific], where the body had been cut in half by a train. George had a bank account and signed checks by thumb print. The funeral services were attended by several hundred whites and indian from the reservation who are here picking strawberries…
Here he is five years earlier, in the doorway of the Davidson Fruit Company in Hood River:
When Tomlike was born, the first white settlers, fur traders, were just arriving with John Jacob Astor in what is now Astoria. The first wagons arrived in Oregon when he was in his twenties over the newly constructed Lolo Pass road, which followed an old Native American trading route he may have already known. Ten years later, when he was my age, Barlow Pass was built, and the first real flood of settlers began. Oregon became a state when he was forty, and when he was fifty the first transcontinental railroad was built, providing passage to Oregon from the east coast in less than a week. At the time a Pacific Railroad brochure assured would-be settlers that “There are but few Indians in Washington Territory, and these have been for many years on reservations, living by fishing and agriculture. [They have] long since abandoned all thought of hostility to the whites, and have mostly adopted civilized customs and habits of industry.” Over the next fifty years he became a fixture among the white settlers in Hood River. Then he was killed by a train.
The ridge of which Tomlike Mountain is the high point was named the Woolly Horn by hunters to commemorate their killing of a buck there, whose antlers were still covered in “velvet” – skin that provides antlers with nutrients as they grow.
It’s now an hour past my turn around time, but I decide to keep going – up Chinidere Mountain, named for Tomlike’s father, and down Eagle Creek – with the idea that I know Eagle Creek so well that I can easily make it down in the dark. I’ve never really given Chinidere the time it deserves. I’m always there after my turnaround time, jogging up and down too fast to appreciate it properly. Maybe this spring we’ll go camping at Wahtum Lake, bring a cooler full of shitty beer and good hot dogs, brave the summer crowds to flip flop up the mountain, pack sandwiches and sunbathe at the top. Someone’s made little wind shelters near the top. I imagine sitting in one with Krista, drinking ginger ale and pointing excitedly to ridges on Mount Hood that she’s of course already noticed for herself.
I take one last picture – my last real one of the day – and start the long slog down Eagle Creek.
Notice that ridge in the middle? I think that’s Barrett Spur.
I motor down the first few miles to Eagle Creek proper. I want to get past Vertigo Mile – the only section of Eagle Creek where my knees still get a little squishy – before dark. And I do. The direct light disappears just as I pass under Tunnel Falls, and I smile down the now familiar trails in the failing light, listening to a David Foster Wallace audiobook. He’s talking about the Maine Lobster Festival. It’s a beautiful essay, full of nuance and moral subtlety. But dinner time’s fast approaching, and I latch on to the bit about eating lobsters and butter and potatoes and corn. I miss his point, of course, and I know I’ve missed his point. It makes me laugh out loud – partly unintentionally, but partly too because it’s getting dark and I want to laugh to alert any animals in the gathering shadows that I’m the sort of creature that laughs. I hope, for them, this means that I’m also the sort of creature that they don’t want to eat.
But what’s out here to eat me? Chipmunks? No. It’s the same dark amorphous things that hang out under children’s beds and in their closets. Unreal things. I imagine a story in the Oregonian, “Man Narrowly Avoids Monster Attack By Laughing at His Misunderstanding of David Foster Wallace Short Story.” Or maybe they’d try to write it to promote page views, sell ads. “Consider the Lobster Saved His Life. You Won’t Believe How.”
I pass over four-and-half mile bridge thinking about swimming just underneath this summer, drinking beer and eating Bánh mì. I’ve been up this trail so many times that it feels like the trails behind my parents’ old house, the ones I once knew so well I could run through them in the middle of the night with my eyes closed. I don’t ever remember being scared back then.
We tend to talk about time using spacial metaphors. We speak of the present constantly moving forward, into the future and away from the past. We speak of being behind in our work, on time, or ahead of schedule. And we speak, almost unavoidably, about memory as a sort of looking back.
But this can’t be exactly right. We cannot be points in time, because bits of the past stay ineradicably in our experiences of the present. The lived present doesn’t just move forward. It takes some of what’s past with it.
The French philosopher Edmund Husserl makes the point by asking how we’re able to comprehend an unfolding melody. If it is to be heard as a melody rather than a series of unrelated tones, it must be comprehended as a single event, even though it does not occupy a single “point” in time. The time over which it unfolds must be folded into a single perceptual present, because progression and rhythm can only be apparent if present perception extends to cover the melody as a whole. The present, then, isn’t an easily delineable point in time. It is, rather, a blur that extends backward.
The point about time may actually reflect back to alter how we think of our presence in space. If I am a blur in time, then maybe I’m a blur in space too. Where am I? I’m moving. I’m going somewhere, from somewhere.
After I cross the bridge I immediately smell smoke. Thick smoke, like someone’s trying to burn a tree whole. I worry for a second about forest fires – a century ago, there was a massive fire here that leveled much of the forest. But then I see the beginnings of a poorly made campfire, and seconds later hear an old gruff voice. “Ahoy!”
“Ahoy”? Who talks like that? Maybe my Beach Boys rubbed off on them.
I walk over to a couple of older guys, maybe my dad’s age, sitting upwind of their sad, smoldering, would-be fire, drinking Coors Light and, I imagine, worrying about how they’re going to cook the two plastic-wrapped steaks sitting at their feet.
I ask them how it’s going, and the gruffer of the two – I never got either of their names – tells me it’s good, that they’re just trying to keep their raging bonfire under control. I laugh and tell them, truthfully, that I’m terrible with fire. If you ever need a fire put out, just ask me to put a log on it. It will be ice cold in minutes. It transpires that we’re all terrible like this. When the gruff one pees on a fire to put it out, it’s apparently like someone’s added gasoline. He thinks his urine might be a viable stand-in for fossil fuels if gas prices ever go back up. But, confoundingly (for them, I’ve gotten pretty used to the idea), all of our wives are prodigious with fire. A couple years ago at Crater Lake, Krista made one so hot that it melted the soles of our shoes. I tell them the story, and they sigh at the cosmic injustice of wives who are better men than we are.
They offer me a “brewski,” which I gratefully accept. It tastes like sweet corn soda. I guess it kinda is. I space out for a minute, fantasizing about a restaurant where any dinner can be ordered as a soda. A cranberry beef coke. Or maybe they could bring them in IV form. Can I have 100 CCs of potato chips? Salt and vinegar. God I’m getting hungry.
We sit for a while bullshitting about their hike up (“brutal, if you’re carrying the kitchen sink”), fire (they’re certain that their problem has to do with waterlogged wood, and I emphatically agree), and camping. They’ve brought a tent as big as a tennis court, camp chairs, and a half rack of beer. It seems silly to me, but this is how they’ve always done it. They’ve been coming here for forty years. Together.
I drink too quickly, and say goodbye before I’m ready, hungry and beginning to worry about time. I put a headlamp on at High Bridge, but it’s not really necessary. The trail’s wide enough for baby strollers. And anyway, I know where I’m going without having to look. I wonder what it will feel like hiking this trail forty years from now.
A few miles later I’m at the still full Eagle Creek parking lot, then I walk a few more along the old Gorge Highway to Cascade Locks. The pavement feels strange and luxurious after so long on thin rocky trails, like a hotel bathroom with two sinks. I zigzag a little just because I can.
In Cascade Locks I stop for dinner at East Wind Drive-In, a walk-up shack famous for foot-long ice cream cones. Cheryl Strayed spent her last two dollars on one at the end of Wild. Tonight it’s all local kids loitering in the parking lot, slowly drinking sodas, sneaking off to smoke cigarettes by the river. I order a serenely obscene amount of food – two bacon cheeseburgers, french fries, a milk shake – and sit on the curb, listening to the kids chatter.
They’re trying to find some marijuana. Things are complicated, and very dramatic. Hunter thinks they should just walk over the bridge to Washington – it’s easy to get weed up there – but Kelsey doesn’t think any stores will be open, and anyway isn’t Stevenson, the closest town, sort of far away? Hunter thinks she’s being a buzz kill, as usual, but Megan agrees, but adds brightly that maybe her brother has some. But he’s not answering his phone. Hunter wonders why the fuck Megan’s brother’s never there when they need him. Megan thinks maybe he doesn’t like it when she smokes. Caleb notes that she doesn’t need her brother to look out for her, and fuck man, he just wants to get hiiiighhh. He says it like that. Like a 90s rapper.
Maybe the whole plan is fucked because Kelsey needs to get home, and Megan’s parents think she’s staying the night over there. And she needs to stay the night over there, because last time she said she was there but actually stayed somewhere else – with Caleb, I suspect – all hell broke lose. Caleb agrees, and calls her sweet heart.
Hunter suggests maybe they can get some beers instead. Kelsey asks where, exasperated, as though they’ve been over all this before. And anyway she really does need to get home. A little defeated, they all decide to get high tomorrow. Can Caleb get the car? Probably, but he’s got to drive his grandma somewhere first. Megan apparently finds this attractive, Caleb stepping up for his family and all, and they kiss goodbye. For a long, long time. Then they say goodnight in that way you do when no one actually wants to say goodnight. Kelsey and Hunter say nothing to each other the whole time, and the girls walk off, leaving the boys to talk about getting those motherfucking beers after all.
My food’s ready just as they’re hatching some plan involving the gas station and Hunter’s backpack. I eat everything – burgers, fries, dropped toppings, everything – in less than a song. The only thing left is my milkshake – strawberry – which I carry with me back up the road and onto the trail, the PCT now, for the last few easy miles back to the car.
When I was the age that those kids are now, I had a pretty nasty health thing that required a kidney transplant. It came out fine – as well as it possibly could have – and I don’t even really think of it that much any more. But getting older for me has always been suffused with a sort of worry about health stuff down the road. I don’t want to go through that again, don’t want to put my family through it. It’s probably why I went hiking today, probably why I go hiking a lot of days: because right now my body can still do this, and I never, ever will take that for granted. I’m so grateful to have a body that can still do this sort of thing, still get me to these sorts of places.
I make it to the car in less than an hour, jogging down the last slope to the bridge over Herman Creek. The car’s still there, untouched, and surrounded now by a half dozen others, from backpackers, I guess, spending the night up Herman Creek. I imagine a half dozen camps all full of Coors Light and undercooked steaks.
I immediately get in and drive down to the main road – the trailhead’s a little creepy at night – but don’t pull out just yet. I stop with the stereo on, take off my shoes, drink a little water, wish I had some potato chips. Kacey Musgraves is on the radio. “If I can’t bring you to my house, I’ll bring my house to you.”