Above the clouds, beneath the blue atmosphere I had an urge to strip bare. This despite a sixty-two degree moisture-filled breeze and deeply ingrained social taboos. I’ve had the impulse before while hiking.
No. I am not an exhibitionist; I’m a very modest person.
Neither do I succumb to the urges. Usually I open my shirt allowing the wind to dry my sweat-soaked skin. On a particularly hot day I’ve been known to remove my shirt for a time before I put it back on for fear I’ll burn.
But that’s different.
When the urge to strip bare comes over me it is not about hot weather. It is about a feeling of unrestrained awe in the presence of the divine. It’s about a desire to strip away anything that separates me from the sacred. Within the caverns of my soul, I yearn to reveal my whole self!
And why wouldn’t I?
I am created in the image of God! Why would I hide anything from the boundless love? When the very breath of God blew across the peak of Wind Mountain this morning I slipped off my shirt. Though the thermometer read 62, the sacred breath warmed my sweat soaked skin and weary spirit.
I could have walked the hard stone trails of pale yellow and brown with my eyes closed. I know her sacred land of brittle grasses and lingering flowers like no other. “Why have I been away so long?” I wondered as a parked at the Coyote Wall trailhead.
The brief respite from the drought disappeared behind September-blue skies and friendly clouds. I slipped out of my raincoat shoving it into my pack. A t-shirt would be plenty.
My old friend beckoned my weary and wounded heart between precipice and boulder. Step by step my heart walked trails well-worn by feet and baked by a summer of merciless sun and no rain. As in past journeys up the exposed fields, the coyote spirit led my mind through my to-comes, my are-nows, and my once-weres.
An old friend, I thought we’d gather beside her fallen Zen rocks and laugh about old times. Remembering my foibles of immaturity when we first met, she held my hand near her wall. But no matter how familiar, coyote spirit always teaches the lesson I need when I visit.
Turning east before reaching her Zen chapel, I trudged toward a cluster of trees. As I did, the damp wind blew behind me. First a smell and then drops caused me to open my pack and slip on the raincoat I thought I wouldn’t need. Mentally rehearsing my route back to the car, my old friend had another plan as she lay another trail before me.
I didn’t question her. I’ve long since learned that coyote spirit never reveals her mystery until she’s ready. And, so, I moved across switchbacks that my muscles had never traversed or maybe my mind had just forgotten.
I met an angry dog in the mist. Wondering whether I’d be huffing back to my car with bloody hand or leg, I spoke to the territorial canine. He wagged and turned around as if to say, “Oh, you’re coyote’s friend. You belong.”
Confused about my location, I wondered again whether I’d bitten off more miles than I wanted. Step by step I hiked into the coyote’s wet breath until a junction lay before me.
I’d been here many times before but it took awhile for me to recognize the blazing bush before me. Without conscious thought I knew which direction was mine. Contentment befell me as I existed within the life force of this holy place.
Remembering other trips through the wilderness — some in which I was baptized in rain and others immersed in sweat — I trekked and paused to peer at coyote’s wall.
She always delivers, though on her own schedule. Wandering mind and focused heart, I would walk or stumble until my old friend gave me the glimpse for which I’d come.
The blue replaced the grey and a ray touched the still-thirsty earth unveiling a delicate pink flower. I knelt before its beauty worshiping in the are-now, thankful for the once-weres, and hopeful for the to-come.
Back at the trailhead I placed my pack on the front seat beside me. “Until next time,” I said as waved goodbye to my ever-present friend.
My perfect hiking trail is isolated and untouched. It is well-maintained yet offers rugged challenge to my body and my wits. The consummate trail is a secret which few journey. My favorite trail offers unique natural geology, wildlife, and vegetation. It offers enough danger to periodically elevate my adrenaline levels but is safe enough to keep my wife from worrying about me.
The Pacific Northwest is brimming with all of the requirements for my too-good-to-be-true trail. Though they don’t come together on one trail, the cumulative effect of hiking the coastal, mountain, desert, and, of course, the Columbia River Gorge provides me with Utopia.
I guess this is why I was so surprised by the condition of the Eagle Creek trail west of Cascade Locks. The trail is known for remarkable natural and human created beauty but it also shows signs of use and abuse.
Some of the conditions along the trail relate to its popularity and proximity to a large metropolitan area. (I recently hiked it on a Wednesday morning and encountered over one-hundred others in my 5-1/2 hour journey.) The substantial traffic on the trail, particularly on weekends, shows in its widening footprint and the densely packed surface.
These small ways in which use shows cannot be avoided but the trail also shows signs
of abuse. Two side by side trees have lost bark and been subjected to graffiti reminiscent of an urban underpass or the freight cars that travel the rails along the Columbia River. A fallen tree in the basin near Punchbowl Falls, likewise, has been abused. The unsanctioned shortcuts and side trails also reflect this misuse.
Despite the magnificence of the multiple waterfalls, the high trail through the the Eagle Creek canyon suffers from unnecessary damage. I don’t know why; I rarely see abuse on the other less-used trails I hike. Most hikers I encounter are diligent in their stewardship of the gift with which those of us in the Pacific Northwest have been blessed.
Maybe my ninth grade Citizenship teacher was right. Increasing world population is unsustainable. Maybe the abusive relationship hikers have with the Eagle Creek trail hints at the sociology of population growth.
Consider that the human population that journeys and harms this trail is but a microcosm of our relationship with the planet. As our numbers increase we feel bigger and more important than the vast ecosystem that encompasses us. Our attitude becomes more arrogant and human-focused. Nature becomes our playground rather than sacred ground.
Is not this the flaw in our thinking that has led us to detrimental climate change? As Earth’s population climbs, we no longer see ourselves as part of nature. Collectively, we cease to perceive our vulnerability.
Forgetting our smallness and membership within creation, our self image (self importance?) grows bigger and our humble vulnerability diminishes. We ignore our connectedness to nature and forget the divine command to be good stewards (Genesis 1:26).
Once we are psychologically disconnected from Mother Earth, it becomes easy to carve our names in a tree or destroy ground vegetation beside the creek, rarely thinking about the impact of erosion when we go off trail. We’re just one person we tell ourselves. No harm from me. Except, of course, we are not one but one-hundred on a weekday and three times that on a sunny Saturday.
Likewise we burn fossil fuels because we’re just one person. No harm from me. I am
just one except, of course, we are more than seven billion.
It has become easy because we’ve forgotten that we are kindred to the tree, the grasses, insects, and animals. We’ve forgotten that nature is our sister, brother, father, and mother.
Of course, neither forgetfulness or denial of our place within the earth is an excuse. Every hiker along the trail and each human on the planet is called by the divine interconnectedness to break with the hive mind of overpopulation. We can and must take personal and collective responsibility for the abuse we’ve inflicted.
Eagle Creek Canyon and Mother Gaia cry out in pain from our use and abuse. Will we provide the balm they need?
East of Portland, further inland then even Hood River, in the mid-Columbia River Gorge the trees become more sparse and the wildflowers and grasses dance in the strong winds. On the craggy bluffs the choreography of bloom and blade is framed by sweeping views of the winding, blue river and the azure & cotton ball sky.
It is here in this land of enchantment in which my mouth opens in awe so that I might taste the sight before me, that my knees grow weak. Like a man before a God I’ve underestimated and over-defined, I drop to my knees before the divine splendor. Steadied on the earth, I discover the divine dome that arches before, beside, and behind me is but crown to the glory of bumblebee, lizard, batchelor buttons, and yellow joy.
And I pray a song of gratitude for the One who loves ostentatiously.
They said sun & sixty; I got gloom and forty-eight.
Anticipating fifties & vanishing clouds; I got forties and a brown pudding path.
Exhausted and wounded by the chaotic clamor of recent weeks, I sought a sequestering salve on Wind Mountain. I trusted the early forecast and scheduled my week so that I could hike in sunshine and sit at the peak breathing in the expansive view of the Columbia River Gorge. It was the balm I deserved and needed I told myself.
Driving to the cinder cone mountain, the place of ancient spirit quests, the clouds did not lift. I changed the setting of my wipers from off to intermittent and eventually to low as I drove along southwest Washington’s Highway 14.
I parked at the lonely trailhead and began my hike. Though it didn’t last, I was pleased to start my journey under dry if overcast skies.
I was soon reminded that the divine breath that blows cold in early spring, is a moist liniment that provokes seasonal resurrections. Among the early blossoms, the changing colors reflected sunny days past and yet-to-be. The absence of human noise floated downward on drops of rain that washed the collected noise from my mind.
Nearing the bend to the westside of the mountain, I could hear the Gorge winds and half-frozen rain howl and clatter on the trees. My eyeglasses fogged on the final ascent while my tightly held hood restricted my peripheral views.
Stumbling, I pulled off my glasses to see through the condensation, and my nearsightedness kept me from visual clarity. A quick loop around the viewing areas, a glance at the low-hanging cloud behind which Mts. Adams and St. Helens hid, a pause at the contorted trees I remembered from previous treks, and I began my descent.
As I moved down the east side of the old cinder cone mountain, I noted my spirit was lighter. The blockages in my head were clearing; my synapses fired as if equipped with new spark plugs.
I’d planned for sun and sixty while expecting fifties and vanishing clouds, but they were unnecessary. Beneath the misty blanket, immersed in the sacred fibers of moisture, the spirit of that sacred place applied the medicinal balm I sought.
Hiking between the Catherine Creek and Coyote Wall trailheads I discovered this scarred and mangled tree dancing in the late summer sunshine.
Pausing nearby, I sat to allow the joy of the weathered one to wash over me. A silly smile spanned my face as I looked at its unswerving pleasure in just being. Despite thinning branches and a disfigured trunk this durable spirit stood before the blue sky and mountains in the distance.
Without arborists to train it into a handsome front yard gem this tree thrived in the midst of its imperfections. Without naysayers along a city boulevard to express repulsion at its lifetime of struggles, the divinity within this tree danced joyfully.
Holy wind, help me appreciate scars, whether physical or emotional. May I learn from my own struggles. May I allow the pains of others to touch and transform me. On this mid-winter day, may I still dance in the certitude of the late summer that I am beloved by the divinity that binds creation together. Amen.
The gate was locked. That was my reminder of the season. Without the typical fall rains of the Columbia River Gorge where I hike or the grey glums of my drier eastern Oregon home it is hard to know the date without a calendar. (We’ve had a warm and sunny autumn so far.)
As I turned the car in a tight circle to park outside the gate, my hiking partner exclaimed, “Look at those spider webs!” Glistening in the early morning sun two labyrinth works of art flanked a worn stop sign. You know it’s going to be a good hike when you get a bonus moment before you ever start! (See Just One More Bonus Moment.)
As I stood trying to simultaneously focus my camera on both webs, the owner showed herself. She was a tad camera shy; she moved out of my focus each time I set up. And, though, I was not successful in capturing the two webs side-by-side or getting a clear image of the creator, I witnessed her efficient food gathering device capture a small flying creature. My hiking partner, waiting about thirty-five feet away, reminded me she was ready to begin our trek and scramble to the Gorton Creek waterfall.
A smile on my face. I bid spider farewell with an appreciation for the utility and beauty of arachnid folk art.