R Solo: 31 Miles for 31 Years

June 6, 2016

I finally took my annual – okay, only annual since last year, but whatever – birthday hike in early June. I realize it’s a little late, but I was super sick for a couple months after my birthday in February, then I was busy finishing my dissertation, then I was super sick about being busy finishing my dissertation, and… well, you get the picture.

I got to Eagle Creek around sunrise, took Tanner Road (FR 777) to the Tanner Ridge Trail, and followed that up 4500′ to the top of Tanner Butte, where I had a long, late breakfast. Then I dropped down into the Eagle Creek drainage, stopped for a short lunch at the upper crossing, and limped back up a few thousand feet to Waucoma Ridge and Indian Mountain. I got sort of heat sick on the way up and decided to cut things short, jogging down to Wahtum Lake and the Benson Plateau, dropping back into Eagle Creek on the Eagle-Benson Trail, and following the throngs down Eagle Creek back to the car.

I’d planned a 42 mile day, and it only ended up being 37. Still, that’s the longest I’ve ever walked in a day. Sort of nice to have a body that’ll do that, despite me being such an old man.

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1.

I play this game with my alarm: it goes off, and I glare at it. For several minutes. I’m not sure exactly what I’m glaring at it for – I guess I want it to take the beeping back, to make it a few hours earlier – but time, at least my time, only moves forward. And so I glare at it in impotent insolence for a few minutes before conceding to some very basic facts about the universe and getting up.

I never use snooze, because if I admit that I don’t actually have to get up – that I could sleep in another ten minutes – then ten minutes will become twenty, and I’ll end up sleeping the day away. Sometimes you have to trust the person you were last night when you set the alarm, even if the tired person you are this morning ardently disagrees. Something about Ulysses and the Sirens.

So I get up again in the pre-dawn dark and drag myself to the car. I left a liter of coffee there last night, from which I take several long sips before starting the engine. I imagine having also left myself a note. “Hey man, look. I know you’re pissed. But you’ll be glad you got up early. Remember what we read about precommitment and life’s unity?”

Then I imagine present me telling past me to fuck off.

2.

I84 is always so nice just before sunrise: empty, with faint strands of light filtering in above Mt. Hood. And the Eagle Creek parking lot is empty when I get there too. The camp host’s just waking up, sitting on a stump outside his trailer, vaguely sorting through bags of food for breakfast. We amiably ignore each other.

I take the usual shortcut up an old portage road to Tanner Road, then amble up the old abandoned road as the sun begins to shimmer through the trees. After a couple quiet miles, the flowers start to wake up too.

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3.

The Tanner Butte Trail apparently had a rough winter. In the first mile, there are maybe a dozen downed logs – most simple hop-overs, but a few that require gymnastic grace far beyond my abilities. And so I do that thing of hugging the log, then taking a sort of slow motion controlled fall to the other side. I’m glad it’s early, and that no one really uses this trail anyway.

It’s beautiful, though, and eventually the blowdown gives way to easy cruiser trail.

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4.

After a few miles of easy walking, there’s a section of tight switchbacks on the edge of a hanging meadow. I follow a deer trail across a small rock outcrop and out into the meadow, which overlooks an eastern fork of Tanner Creek. I can hear a waterfall maybe a thousand feet below, but can’t see anything through the thick second growth green that folds gently down, then back up toward Munra Point, then up and down a half dozen drainages to the edge of civilization, thirty miles from here.

And there are strawberries! Small clumps, with maybe half the berries already gone. Picked. It seems strange to me for a moment, until I notice a large pile of bear shit nearby. Oh. I only pick one.

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5.

Back into the words, there’s a shift change: the tiger lilies and big bright flowers from earlier fade, and the floor explodes in a carpet of tiny bright white blooms, not much bigger than the heads of pins. I have to hold my breath to get a clear picture, because the air from an exhale is enough to send them all shimmering into each other.

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Above Wauna Point, the big flowers come back, but now it’s bear grass and rhododendron.

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I’m used to the gaudy, deep red rhododendrons you always see in the city; the ones that seem so ripe that even when new they’re a little decayed. But the rhododendrons here are small and fresh, budding modestly among bright green leaves.

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6.

I stop at Dublin Lake for a short snack, then follow Tanner Ridge as it rambles up and down through fields of paintbrush and rocky slopes where Pikas protest my trespass.

A few miles later there’s a small cairn and a steep side trail to the left, up to Tanner Butte. I follow it, and almost immediately all the mountains come out to say hello. Hood:

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Adams:

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St. Helens:

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The Washington Trio:

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Jefferson and (if you squint and kinda take my word for it) the Three Sisters:

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Okay… and Hood again:

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7.

Tanner Butte used to be a fire lookout. I guess they burned the thing down years ago, but there’s still a tiny bit of wreckage on top.

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I take a break on the rocky summit to have another snack. I didn’t notice on the way up, but there are hundreds of bright butterflies all around, chasing each other through the flowers. And there are birds too, and bees, and bugs… a whole blooming, buzzing world, utterly impervious to me.

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8.

Back on the main trail, just beyond Tanner Springs, the ground again shifts, and becomes a carpet of avalanche lilies, stretching back into the woods as far as I can see.

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9.

The trail splits east from the ridge at the edge of Bull Run, then descends to Thrush Pond, a mosquito resort where it’s apparently high season. And where hundreds of hungry well-wishers have apparently gathered to greet me.

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I sort of jog, sort of skip, sort of just fucking panic past the pond, down a steep talus slope overgrown with devil’s club, and finally to Big Cedar Springs, where there are somehow absolutely no bugs. I sit for a while in an old campsite among the ancient cedars, wondering whether mosquitoes really do have a place in the order of things. You know that thing from John Muir everyone quotes, about everything in nature being connected, everything having its place among creation’s majesty? I feel like in the first draft there was maybe a footnote excluding mosquitoes. “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe. Except for mosquitoes. Fuck mosquitoes.”

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10.

The trail flattens and my mind wanders. I feel so comfortable here – in the woods, but more specifically in the gorge, on this path I’ve walked a dozen times, always at the far edge of a long walk. The first time I came here, on a loop up Eagle Creek and down Tanner Creek, I was really worried about making the miles, about losing the trail and having to turn back, about having bitten off too much… But now I know it’ll be fine. Walking – at least when it’s flat and cool – has sort of ceased to be an activity for me. It’s just something I do in the background, like breathing. My legs go automatically.

And so I think. I think about what it means to be so comfortable out here now. And maybe more than that: lately I’ve just sort of been feeling at home everywhere. At some random rest stop sitting in the grass having lunch, cooking dinner on the side of the highway in Death Valley, everywhere. I feel like this is the best part about getting older, and no one ever talks about it: you just stop worrying so much about unimportant shit. You feel at home everywhere. Even just on last year’s version of this hike, I was so overwhelmed with worry about getting older and not belonging in the world anymore. But it doesn’t seem so bad now. Maybe worrying about getting older is one of the things from which getting older frees you.

11.

The trail jumbles as it descends down to Eagle Creek, passing over mossy logs that have become the path, braiding a little with the bed of an old stream. Eventually I make it down, and wade across. The water’s low – just past my knee in the deepest spot – and I just stand in the middle for a while, trying (and failing) to see Mount Hood through the trees.

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I stop at the far side to filter some water and eat a proper lunch. It’s getting really hot, and halfway trough I move to the middle of the stream and sit down. Water rushes past on both sides, it’s all I can hear. It’s wonderful.

12.

But then things get hard.

The climb out goes well at first, and I start up toward Indian Mountain feeling good. But then it just gets… hot. And not the sort of sweaty, drink water and you’ll be fine hot, but scary hot. My thinking gets weird and I’m suddenly very dizzy. I sit down for a while near a trickling stream, splash water on my face, and try to pull it together.

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I feel good, but then start moving and immediately feel bad again. Thinking’s still strange. I probably should turn back, but I’m stubborn, and I push all the way to Indian Springs. By the time I get there, I’m panicking, and so I turn around and jog down the old road to Wahtum Lake. My mind sort of goes blank on the way, and before I know it I’m running down the two hundred steps to the water. Then I’m sitting in the lake, drinking from my filter as fast as water will come.

Huh.

I vaguely think about staying here until it cools off, but that’s hours and hours away, and I don’t really want to descend Eagle Creek in the dark. So I decide to stay for as long as it takes to drink three liters of water, then to just take things slowly on the way back, maybe jump in the creek a few times.

After the panic subsides, the whole thing just seems really funny. And I laugh at myself, sitting out here in the middle of this lake, drinking from a bag. I hear myself laughing, and it sounds like the sort of laugh you’d give a partner for some strange, endearing quirk. The sort of laugh you want to hear your partner laughing. The thing is, I can’t explain it, but I feel totally, totally at home here. I belong here, in the middle of this lake, drinking from a bag.

13.

Eventually I start lightly shivering, which seems like a pretty good sign that I’m alright, and I make my way slowly to the PCT, and along the gentle hills north to the Benson Plateau. I make myself stop every ten minutes, just to check in. Every twenty, I drink a half liter of water. I’m carrying five.

I peel off the PCT on the southern end of the Plateau, and descend steeply down the Eagle-Benson Trail back to Eagle Creek. I love this trail. There’s basically constant blowdown and it was clearly built before the invention of switchbacks. But there’s still just something about it. It feels like a secret passage between two freeways.

I keep stopping every ten minutes, and sometimes even more frequently to marvel at the flowers.

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14.

I’m so happy and relieved by the time I get to Eagle Creek that I backtrack a little, up past Tunnel Falls, to a small deep pool above Twister Falls where I stop to wade for a while. Just seven or something miles back to the car. I drink a celebratory beer and begin meandering home.

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Beyond Tunnel Falls the crowds get ridiculous. My big pack and torn up legs feel out of place here, and I try to look inconspicuous as I follow the slow motion conga line down.

I stop for one last late afternoon swim just past low bridge, and eat a banana sitting on the shore with my feet in the water. Young couples come by with their phones out, bickering about how much further it is to the falls. Then a woman in her late thirties meanders down and sits next to me. She’s got a vaguely European accent that I can’t even begin to place. She only says two words. “It’s hot.” I don’t think she means it as a complaint, or even really as something to which I’m supposed to respond.

She means it, it turns out, as an explanation. The next moment, she takes off her shirt and shorts in two quick motions, then gracelessly splashes into the water. She’s under for just long enough for me to start worrying, but then she’s up again, laughing.

And now her friend’s here too. He smiles at me for a moment, clumsily takes off his clothes, and jumps in. They start splashing at each other.

There’s a gorgeous young couple on the bridge above us taking pictures, glistening in brand new running clothes, looking down their noses at my new friends. And I know, with the sort of certainty it’s taken me years to reach, that my home is down here, with the fumbling fogeys. I’m glad for that. I feel at home here.

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