April 18-19, 2015
Graced with a weekend of unseasonably warm April weather, Robin and I haul our backpacking gear out of the closet to pack for our inaugural 2015 overnight trip. Piece by piece, rediscovering my beloved set of gear is like finding old friends. Holding each item brings back flashes of last summer: orange puffer jacket worn on top of the mountain goat ledge of Buckhorn Mountain, hot pink running shorts cruising around Mt. Rainier, electric blue hooded shirt shielding me from the sun in the snowfields near Broken Top’s lake, magenta rain jacket keeping me dry in the torrential downpours near Three Sisters. Rhinestone sunglasses worn everywhere, because come on. Rhinestone sunglasses.
My humble collection sits in a neat pile on the floor, jewel-toned things that I’m so happy to see. I’m aware that I’m bouncing and hyper, just too excited for 5am to get here and ferry us away into the mountains. Packing goes quickly as I wake up the muscle memory that fits the puzzle of my pack together like a reflex. Although we’ve day-hiked through the fall and winter, I haven’t overnighted since our final trip to the Wallowas in late September. Seven months!
I will never go this long again, I tell myself as I fall asleep. This year, I will snowcamp. Big promises from the comfort of a warm bed.
The alarm goes off at 5:00 and we are at the Eagle Creek parking lot by 6:00. The lot is half full but there are no people to be seen. Our hiking sticks clack along the road to the proper trailhead and already everything is so beautiful bathed in blue pre-dawn light. Due to my neuroses about hiking with too many people, I’ve never hiked Eagle Creek before, always scared away by the legendary throngs of people crowding the trail. This morning, we have it to ourselves and I feel spoiled with the solitude. I now understand why the trail is so popular, for it is one of the most instantly beautiful trails I have seen.
Evidence of the trail’s fame is everywhere, though. Plastic sunflower seed bags, wads of Kleenex, gum wrappers, and all manner of litter line the trail forward. Several times I see white flashes along the trail and get excited to spot trilliums, only to realize upon closer inspection that they’re wads of discarded tissues caught in the bushes. Due to this ongoing trail of human evidence, I am delighted when we approach High Bridge and we are alone.
“This is great,” Robin says. “Usually I jog past High Bridge to get out of the crowds.” It is, in fact, a very high bridge and I get a bit dizzy as I peer over the edge and watch the water flow through the narrow canyon below.
We walk a bit further until Low Bridge (also known as 4.5 Mile Bridge), where we pull off the trail and make breakfast along Eagle Creek’s bank. It’s our first hiker breakfast of the year and it’s delightful: oatmeal with brown sugar, freeze dried strawberries, slivered almonds, and powdered coconut milk. The taste is so nostalgic and flashes of all the places we’ve had this exact breakfast flip through my mind like they did when I pulled my gear out of the closet. It’s like my brain has a map of breakfast locations pinpointed in my head as temporary, mobile home hotspots, and it’s connected me to those places in a different, more intimate way than when I’m just passing through.
As we are eating, two wood ducks paddle by and I am taken with how exotic and unusual they look.
After breakfast, we continue along the Eagle Creek trail until it meets up with the Eagle Tanner Trail, a ratty, wilder looking path that is fainter to see and perpetually overgrown. We pass a couple going the other way who report that we’re the first people they’ve seen in 15 miles and my heart gives a victorious little jump. There is nothing better than having miles of forest and mountain all to oneself; I’ll be the first to admit that I’m terrible at sharing the places we work so hard to get to. We chat with this couple for a few moments; they are doing the same loop we are, but the other way around, and caution that we are approaching a water crossing that wasn’t a lot of fun for them (and their cheerful dog).
I can hear the roar of Eagle Creek’s West Fork and we snake our way down the hillside; it sounds big my lack of experience with water crossings where rock hopping isn’t an option is giving me quiet pangs of uncertainty. Approaching the creek, I can see that water lives up to the foreshadowing. Robin and I scope out potential routes across as we change into our water shoes — it all looks deep to me. Robin goes first and I can see the water pushing hard against his calves, his legs flexing to counteract the force. At the deepest point, the creek is just past Robin’s knees.
That doesn’t look so bad, I tell myself. Just past the knees! I’ve got this. I stick one foot in, then the other, then do a little jig of shock at the temperature. I’m in for maybe 15 seconds before I go crashing back to shore.
“BALLS, THAT’S COLD!” I yell. It’s the first and only thing I can think to say. My feet are still aching and it’s the first time I’ve been in water so cold it hurt.
My brain squabbles with itself and has a little internal dialogue where one half is screaming “NOPE” while the other half tries to be reasonable because staying on this side of the creek is not an option. If there’s one good thing about having had a large amount of tattoo work done, it’s my brain’s capacity for talking itself through a formidable amount of pain and discomfort. The Business Side shuts the pain receptor side down and before the losing side can protest, I charge into the water.
It’s beyond cold, and shortly I’m up to my thighs and screaming “BALLS!” again. The water is loud and I can barely hear myself. I crash out onto the other bank, hopping from foot to foot to get the blood flowing. Robin laughs and we situate ourselves on a large mossy boulder to eat lunch and warm our legs in the sun.
Bellies full and toes dethawed, Robin and I switchback up the Eagle Tanner Trail for five miles before leveling out at the junction with the Tanner Butte Trail, an old overgrown road. To the left, a creepy tree branch barricade obscures the road leading to a sign that warns of the active security cameras scouting the perimeter of the Bull Run Watershed. Robin pouts at the signs; the urge to go exploring forbidden territory is killing him. We swing to the right instead and follow the road as it winds up the butte, newly alive beargrass slapping against our shins.
It’s creeping on towards evening when we see the pink flag marking the “trail” cutting sharply up towards the Tanner Butte summit. It’s a half mile pretty much straight up; the trail cuts up in front of my face as I cleave my way to the top. Robin has disappeared up ahead to scout the campsite on the summit while I huff and puff a ways behind. I hear a “WOO!” and my heart sinks. Robin reappears and the look on his face confirms what I heard: another party has beat us to the summit.
I emerge from the trees and look up to the top, getting an eyeful of a man in his boxer briefs changing his pants on top of the butte. I glance down to obey the etiquette of not staring at people attending to personal things in the wide open outdoors.
“Oh shit!” I hear him whisper-yell to his buddies. “There are people down there!”
“Dude, way to welcome them to the top,” his friend whisper-yelled back. I suspect that they don’t realize how easily sound carries. Pro-tip: it carries far and fast!
Our Plan A campsite taken, Robin and I hunt for another place suitable for the tent. It’s pretty bleak; the only spot is right on the trail and in full view of the bros on top of the butte. I am constitutionally unable to camp near trails or so close to others, so we go crashing down the side of the butte towards a bluff. Robin disappears over the edge, and, momentarily overcome with fatigue, I plop down on the beargrass and close my eyes. There is no breeze and even though the sun is going down, it’s still warm like summer and not late April. I have an idea.
Robin’s head pops back above the slope and I squint up at him.
“You know, I have kind of a crazy thought. You can say no,” I start. “We could cowboy camp. The grass is really soft, and there’s no chance of rain…”
We have never cowboy camped before, but Robin says yes. Another first! Down, down the bluff until we find a flat spot on the edge. It’s rockier than it looked above, and the one obvious flat spot is already vacated by a swarming anthill.
Ants, why does it always have to be ants? I wonder. This is the third time we’ve almost camped on top of them. Ants are seriously everywhere. Ants are winning at life.
Our plan B is to put our sleeping pads down in a little channel between clumps of beargrass, with us sleeping toe to head. I lay down in my sleeping bag to see how it is without a tent and am instantly delighted. Looking up at the uninterrupted stars as Robin cooks dinner, I fixate on an object that appears to be hovering in tight circles above us. I sleepily ask Robin if he sees it hovering.
“It’s moving!” I insist. Robin humors me and returns to focusing on not scorching the mac ‘n cheese. I swear it’s moving in non-satellite ways. I prattle on about UFOs, something I normally give zero thought to and don’t believe in, but for some reason seems totally on topic in this moment.
Sleepiness and ravenous hunger set in as we dispatch dinner without a word. Almost immediately after eating, we crawl back into our sleeping bags and adjust to a tent-free experience. Portland twinkles below us and Mt. Hood stares at us from across the dusky expanse. We are on one of the highest points in the Gorge and it feels like it; from where we are, everything seems very small. Looking back up at my mysterious orb, it now seems just to be a still, ultrabright star or planet. No bobbing.
“Uh, I think that wobbling light was just my eyes swimming with fatigue,” I say. Robin laughs. It’s quiet for a few minutes, then we ramble on if we think there’s other life in the universe. Something about ditching our tent’s thin nylon cocoon and the false sense of security it provides suddenly makes the universe take on more immediate status as it splays out above us, unimpeded. The abyss is in your face. It does not blink.
The ground is impossibly soft. Curled on my side, the tufts of beargrass hold me in place and it feels like I’m being cradled. Listening to the airplanes swooping in to land at PDX, I drift off into the best night’s sleep I have ever had.
I wake up the next morning to a face full of beargrass. The air is warm and the pre-dawn sky is still pink and dusty blue. Sitting up, I see that Mt. Hood is large and in charge right in front of us. Arriving in camp so late and close to dark, we didn’t have the chance to fully appreciate it but this morning is it beautiful and showy. Robin tromps around taking pictures and I spy him gazing at the mountain the way that some men stare at beautiful women.
I nestle back into the grass, not wanting to wake up and leave my soft spot on the ground. I am 100% converted to cowboy camping, and sleepily thank the bros for having claimed the summit and forcing us into this wonderful new plan. It is easy to be enamored with open camping in early April, though, for the mosquitoes and flies have not yet hatched…
After packing up, we take a quick jaunt to the summit and take a photo of our shadows holding hands in triumph, then it’s back down the step spur trail to join the Tanner Butte Trail once again. We follow it around what feels like an endless ridge of more beargrass and some unknown stick-y shrub that leaves little cuts on my shins. The track continues for so long through indistinguishable scenery that when rounding a corner, we swear we’ve turned that same corner before and we’re repeating trail like in some cliched haunted forest movie. Not helping matters, we pass a very large femur in the middle of the trail and I spin too detailed of a yarn about how I bet some guy’s dog ran into the woods and came back with a human femur in its mouth and dropped it there.
Finally the endless beargrass alley starts switchbacking down and cutting through standard forest. Trilliums, shamrocks, and fairy slipper orchids abound and I can’t believe how fresh they look. Perhaps a day old, they are ultra green and practically glowing. They are the puppies and kittens of the plant world, spring babies screaming with life and so fresh and new.
I know we are near civilization when I smell synthetic fruit. A wall of scented product hits me in the face and, like a total weirdo, I whisper to Robin, “There are people nearby.” I hear my creepy little voice and am struck by how weird and detached I get from people when we backpack, and briefly wonder if I’m going to return from the John Muir Trail later in the summer entirely feral and unable to function in society. And only talking in lyrics from Sting and The Police or something.
We don’t see anyone for several minutes, but sure enough there they are, all clean smelling with their scented shampoos, body sprays, and lotions in bouquets of fake melons, berries, and flowers. My nose crinkles as we walk by. They are maybe a half a mile from the parking lot and are asking if they made it to Tanner Butte. Robin politely tells them that they aren’t quite there yet and we continue on our way back to the black ribbon of asphalt that leads to the car.
Later on, bed feels good after a shower, but still not quite as splendid as the beargrass felt on the Tanner Butte bluff.