Saturday, December 11, 2010

Cape Flattery, the end of Part I

I was not prepared for the end.

I had passed from San Francisco Bay, thru the eucalyptus of the headlands and the fir of Point Reyes, to the oak woodlands of the Sonoma Valley, along the Eel River to the redwood parks. And then, Oregon, and the crest trail to Crater Lake, forest service roads to the Willamette Valley, Eugene, Corvallis, Portland, and another river, the Columbia. Mt. St Helens, Mt. Rainier, Olympia, Olympics, the straight of Juan de Fuca, and that was it.
At dusk on October 7th, I crested a hill from the south side of Clallam Bay. It was sometime just before 7 PM, and the sky had gone purple. The water of the straight quietly lapped in the most modest of waves, more like a lakeshore than a part of the raging Pacific, and across the water, in a fading band of green, Vancouver Island, British Columbia.
Was this the end now? Could I say I had done what I set out to do? Yes, I could, and I had. But no, it was not yet done. As I had walked the destination I gave people had been refined from the great to the specific. When I was first stopped and asked where I was going and what I was doing, I had barely even begun the trip. It was on Stage Coach Rd, Duarte’s Tavern still in sight. Two old ladies in too bright clothing and too big sunglasses listened patiently as I told them I was walking to the Olympic Peninsula, and they said “Where’s that?” It was an encouraging response. (I would feel a similar thrill when people would react the same way when I told where I had started)
I modified my answers. At San Francisco I had simply said ‘North,’ by the redwoods I said ‘Washington,’ at Eugene ‘the Olympic Peninsula,’ and now, on the peninsula, I had settled at Cape Flattery, the western-most tip. From Clallam Bay I could make the walk in two days, so I went into town to ask where I might camp out and was pleasantly answered with an invitation to be a guest at the house of a woman in town. The plan was modified, slightly, and I stayed instead at the house of her daughter and her son-in-law, across the road from her.
The weather worsened the next day, and the day after, so that by the time I left I had spent two full days in Clallam Bay before the weather cleared and I could walk again. They all of them invited me to stay with them again on the way back, which I would. It had been a very pleasant time spent, going for walks at the straight during the short spells when the weather cleared, collecting beach glass, throwing sticks for their dog to chase.
This last walk I followed the beach for much of the way. There, at the northern edge of the peninsula, the beaches are flat and brief and littered with stones and kelp. Walking along them means staying close to the trees since tides can be extreme and sections of mud treacherous. But soon, too, I had come to the Makah reservation, camped a night, and then walked to the town of Neah Bay and out, up some small hills, and over, till I heard once more the roar of the Pacific. One, last grove of cedars, and there it was.
There is a parking lot, and then a trail, and at the end of that an observation deck, on the cape, the most Northwest point of the contiguous states. This last knuckle on a fist of land, the cape juts out over water and drops to fluted sea caves and howling waves, barnacles, oyster catchers, limpets, puffins, sea lions, and medusa kelp fronds that roll with the swells. I saw all this from this last measure of land, the cornice of a continent rising.
I leaned on the edge of the railing while a couple of elderly bird watchers mounted the stairs to join me, looking out at Tatoosh island. Even if they were not there, I would not have reacted differently. I was done with shouting. I did not feel the need. All I wanted then, at journey’s end, was to sit quietly for awhile. And so I did. Then, when I was ready, I started back.
In the parking lot, I dropped my pack, put down my walking sticks, and sat myself on the pavement. Now, the first chapter of my journey, had ended. I had fulfilled the guidelines of the experiment, of which there had been two for this portion.

1. To never ride in any motorized vehicle.
2. To accept what I am offered with gratitude.

And I had refined my ending till there was nothing more to whittle off. There was nowhere else to walk to. Now was the uncertainty of a new journey before me. Am I to go east? To the Atlantic? To Maine? To Florida? Or Canada? Or south again home? And how long will that take? What if I reach my thirties and still I walk? Or forties? Would that still be alright? Even if it were alone? Even if my most intense experiences are unshared? Even if I am not sure they ever were?
Around me, more cars had come, and the passengers went about, indifferent to my quiet existential crisis.
I sat there a long time, leaving only when the daylight hastened out and I could not stay crouched on the tar. The last cars left the cape, and I put on my pack and walked.

Three days later I was in Port Angeles, where I bought a ferry ticket for Victoria, British Columbia, and then another from there to Seattle, where I will pass the winter. There is much to think about, and figure, for what will come with the spring.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Untitled Poem

Where the firs grew in circles by Saranac Lake
A scarlet-eyed loon howled over its mate.
I felt its rage swell and swallow the sky,
Knock down the stars, the fire, and I.

The lap of the lake, the loon's song, my breath,
The sound of all life holds the promise of death.
To stand shod on those shores felt ignorant sin.
Let me go back to that place again.

The tap-drip of rain on the forest's green eaves,
Come cover and cloak me in pine and oak leaves,
To cut thru the gold poplars as a crow to its nest,
But Uncas is dead. Hawkeye is gone to the west.

Even October branches feel sacred and haunted,
To sway with their sway is not more than I've wanted.
Now in my mind it is winter, and the colors grow dim.
Let me go back to that place again.

At a farm in the fields where two rivers crossed,
And the swallows swooped low and were gone with the frost,
My thoughts held the shape of a lone whip-poor-will.
Did I dream it all then? Could I dream it still?

A lion had stepped from the ranks of the corn
And shattered the moon with the boom of his roar.
The blue of his eye burned thru me like flame.
Let me go back to that place again.

The roll of the prairie's striated loom,
The smell of the sweet grass and Indian perfume,
Old boots and a horse and and feathers and grains
And ride with the buffalo over the plains,

The drum of the sage grouse, the coyote choir,
Joseph went cold and dead with his fire,
Solace and silence, without and within,
Let me go back to that place again.

Is the world - or I - who has changed?
That the sounds are all harsh and the words have come strange?
That we've mapped out the stars, found the secrets therein,
And we've been to the wizard, though our hearts remain tin?

The fields are all burned. The river's gone dry.
A body of crows has eaten the sky.
I remember the way that it was before then.
Let me go back to that place again.

Crossing the Olympics in Silence

I had written earlier that Olympic National Park is one of the quietest places on the planet. Go there, and you will understand. A fist of rock thrust up from the ocean and joined North America, then sent glaciers down to carve out Puget Sound, cutting a moat from where there would one day be people. Then when the people came, in boats and on foot and later by car, geography and climate played against settlement. East-blowing, moisture-laden air knocks against the mountains and sheds its load, resulting in the wettest place in North America. (The island of Kauai receives more, but is only politically, not geographically, North American) Rainfall is more commonly measured in feet than by inches. Up to 12 feet in parts. A goldfish could spend summers free range with weather like that.

The mountains that allow this spectacular rainfall are not especially high – Mt. Olympus does not even rise to 8,000 feet. Rainier, by contrast, is over 14,000 feet high. But these same mountains still hold glaciers from the Pleistocene, thanks to cool ocean air. They rise in a jumble of teeth. There is no easy ridgeline and only one low pass, and so no road thru the Olympics, which means a drive from the coastal section of the park to the city of Bremerton, on the sound, will take about 3 hours, though they are not even 60 miles apart.

Then there is the vegetation, so much of it that an 1889 expedition assembled for the purpose of crossing the Olympic peninsula took 6 months. It was unknown what they would find within the wilderness – 90% of which is still there – as the natives of the area seldom ventured within the mountains. It was not, presumably, because of superstition, rival tribes, or grizzly bear – none of which were known to ever have been within what is now the park – but for the shear difficulty of navigation. Every pint of rain has been converted to wood, moss, and leaves that the place is a dense tangle of chin-high sword fern, salal, spruce, alder, maple, and fir. The air itself is green. This is the highest concentration of biomass per acre on Earth - including the Amazon and the Congo - since when a tree falls, it does not rot, but sprouts moss and fungus and trees in turn that a century old spruce can be growing suspended from a hanging snag and it seems there are two forests, the vertical and the horizontal.

Still, six months seemed outrageous. I was sure that I could do better. And I did. It took me five days to cross the park from east to west, but I had a distinct advantage over those earlier folks. I had trails and a map to follow. That’s cheating I suppose. I let someone else do the exploring for me. That’s not the way it was for them.

Alright then, let’s try it the way they did.

At Ruby Beach, north of Kalaloch, on the coast-side of the park, my walk along the beach was blocked by a cliff sticking its foot out into the Pacific. If I wanted to get all the way to Cape Flattery – the end of the Olympic Peninsula, and of the US too, I suppose – I was going to have to get off the beach. So instead of taking the path up to Highway 101, which I had passed a quarter mile back, I made sure my hip-belt was tight, stashed my hiking poles, and started to climb.

I am not sure if any members of the Press Expedition – as the 1889 foray was called – ever had to climb a cliff with a backpack, but surely had they encountered such an obstacle, they would not have shied away. So, my fingers in the cracks of sandstones and hollows left by borer clams, I crept spider-like up the cliff till I could sink my fingers into some sedges sprouting at the top. Then I gripped onto a salal bush and swung myself up. There was a deer path that I followed, ducking a low branch, straying wide where the cliff had eroded under a mat of roots, going between two stunted spruces. My pack gets stuck as I try to pass, so I take it off and shift it around one of the trees and over a log. I take a step and fall thru some rotted leaves covering a sinkhole, though only about 6 inches deep. I pull out, and put my other foot forward, breaking a weft of branches, cracking and scratching thru the next few steps.

A swale in the land drops me down to where a tree blew over and tore a chunk of earth with it that I stand in a hollow, salal branches and ferns closing over my head. I begin to walk one way out and get my glasses knocked off my a bush. I spend a minute groping for them, not moving my feet, then try another way thru the sword ferns, but the fallen tree tore up its roots like great links in a chain that bar me from that way. The only way then is to climb up the root ball and onto the trunk, a more difficult task than the cliff as I’m being jabbed, scratched, and grimed all over as I rise, mud falling out beneath my feet, sweating like a horse with no ocean breeze to cool me off. I walk along the trunk, the only clear path, till the remaining branches block me, and I descend, looking for the next fallen tree. And that’s how I move thru, going trunk to trunk, navigating the lattice of fallen wood.

All the earlier elements of the first part are repeated, minus losing my glasses, plus a few more falls. Each passage of the labyrinth comes blocked with salal that I must either force my way thru, or scrambled onto an adjacent log sheathed in velvet moss, till I stumble onto the highway. Sitting down, I shake out my clothes, unlace my boots and empty the twigs from my socks. I pull the leaves from my underwear and change my hat. I look back thru the forest to the open air where the cliff falls to the ocean, maybe about 80 meters away. It has taken me 40 minutes to get this far.

The same factors that kept the Indians out still seem to keep folks away that despite being within easy commute distance of 6 million people, the park is virtually uninhabited. During my five days within the mountain section, I would see one person more than a mile from a road. I would enjoy an external quiet that I had been lacking since Rainier.

However, it was only an external quiet. Internal quiet is something different. My mind is an active one. I won’t say keen or productive, but certainly buzzing.

It’s no wonder, given the amount of stimuli available to it, it should be so. I don’t know about a century, or a millennium, ago, but in my time it’s as though silence has come to be feared, and despite the hundred of precious proverbs extolling its worth we’re bent on its extinction. In public, even in places that I had hoped would have quiet – libraries, coffee shops, cathedrals – I find whirring machinery, conversation, or piped in music. I don’t particularly want to be listening to the Jackson Five as I write this, but the coffee shop I’m in insists on having it.

I talked about this incident with a park employee I met. I felt that a hundred years ago things were quieter not due to lack of machinery – or rather, not solely from lack of machinery – but lack of intruding sound. Most sound that was out there was put there by or for the listener – for work, for pleasure, for transportation, for thought. How much more meditative it would have been to be out in the woods without a song in my

“In John Muir’s time,” he said, and with park employees it always comes back to Muir, “people read more, sang more, and there were more musicians. People had stuff in their heads all the time.”

I don’t doubt that a century ago people were thinking, but I do suspect they had much less in their heads. Their brain activity wasn’t clogged with radio jingles and theme songs to cancelled television programs and the Jackson Five. The thoughts that were there were thoughts that they wanted to have. They were not intrusions coming to them via well-meaning, banal restaurateurs and civic centers. One could still walk thru a city park, say, and listen to the wind and not the piped-in marches of Sousa.

I became frustrated with myself that sitting at an alpine meadow, or watching bears enjoy a huckleberry bush, my mind was still chattering on, that in even such a charged natural environment I could have a Zeppelin song in my head, or think about a sentence I wanted to write. It was as if the accretion of outside sound had built up in a reservoir of noise that now leaked back to fill a vacuum. I couldn’t have silence even if I wanted it, even if I got there – and I had – for lack of having a quiet mind. All those sounds, conversations, jam sessions, questioning thoughts would come back that I may as well be listening to an audio player.

This is troubling. It means that I am doing something I always admonished my students never to do. I am just passing thru. I am distracted.

I think, come spring, I may again cross the park, this time from south to north, and perhaps then, in silence. From when I enter to when I leave, I will make neither words nor songs, but let the memory of noise fade and let sound enter me. To contribute towards me and to who I am becoming, and not project myself so much.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Enchanted Valley

There are so many things about Olympic National Park that I find particularly endearing. As it turns out, it is one of the quietest places in North America. The weather keeps the sunshine crowd away while limiting how far outside sound can travel, the trees grow more pounds of moss than foliage – damping vibration – and the tourists stick to Hurricane Ridge and the Sol Duck hot springs on the northern fringe of the park. No chance of driving across. In the Olympic mountains, there’s no thru road.

I wasn’t in what was considered the more scenic section of the park. I know this by the following: there was no road leading to the trail head, and my hike consisted of more bear than people sightings (four to one). One was so close I could have hit him with a spoonful of apple sauce. That would be the bear, I mean. The human I could have gauged a chunk out of with said spoon. Around Marmot Lake, I came around the bend of the trail, and there was the furry, black behind towards me, the attached face in a berry bush. This was a good thing, as it gave me the advantage of time enough to back around the bend and give my approach a second try. Yet on the repeat, when I came back, both behind and bear were gone. I stood there, lost-looking, confused how an animal that weighs more than a refrigerator could disappear without making noise enough for me to notice. Then he reappeared 60 meters distant, about 20 seconds later, and looked back at me, as though to say ‘well, you might as well help yourself now that you’ve ruined my appetite.’

I stayed at that campsite only a night, since I chose to make use of the unusually clear weather to keep hiking the following day. Looking back on it, I ought to have stayed on so long as the weather allowed. I was above four thousand feet, in a bowl of a cirque, peaks all around, and small alpine lakes where a herd of elk drank each morning and dusk. But clear weather being an unusual resource on the peninsula, I crested over the pass from where one river flows, to another, the Quinault. From O’Neill Pass I could look out the mouth of the Enchanted Valley, below the peaks of the Adams range, to a band of blue, the Pacific. My first sight of the ocean since leaving Crescent City, California on July 11th.

The Enchanted Valley, when you enter it, is well worthy of its name. The Quinault River has scraped out a flood plain of smooth grass and maple groves gone gold in the autumn, sunk down at the bottom of two ridges of evergreen ramparts rising to rock above the ribbon of jade. Waves of alder trees grow like bamboo by the shores, and dead stands of them within the water where the river sucked in its gut and swung it over a hundred meters. As the last light cast fire to the peaks, I had a small blaze of my own, and boiled my dinner in the popcorn can I’ve kept since walking out Duarte’s Tavern. (I do not think I would be overestimating it if I called it the most crucial piece of equipment I own.) The campsite at the Enchanted Valley I have to myself, and bears number three and four. They seem to stay on their side and I stay on mine. Nothing but the glowering beams of the ranger station to mess with the evening’s program: sunset fade to starlight accompanied by rushing water and occasional salmon.

The ranger station within the Enchanted Valley is a beautiful monstrosity. It had been built in 1930 when the land was national forest and not yet park. It is a pretty enough, 2 ½ storey structure of hewn logs and cedar shingles that had at first been an inn, then an Air Force station during the war, then open to hikers again until 1980, when it was closed for repairs till 1985. By then, for having lasted five decades it was deemed ‘historic’ and worthy of restoration. A private group took up the cause.

Here is a direct quotation from a poster on the side of the building explaining some of the history of the chalet:

"By 1931, the two and a half story [sic] Chalet was completed. For the next several years, the Enchanted Valley and its Chalet were a featured stopping point for hikers and horse caravans. It provided shelter, a bath, cooks, good beds, and guides for anyone willing to pay the small fees. The following were the typical rates charged at the time: meals $1.00, single beds $1.50, double beds $2.00."
[there follows history of its appropriation by the park, closing to the public, and then reopening in 1985]
"Thanks to the hard work of the Olympians [the hiking club that funded restoration] the Chalet is at least for now, in stable condition and able to be used as a seasonal ranger quarters and ranger station. In addition, one corner of the first floor is open to the public as an emergency shelter."

I am sure there are plenty of people in their fifties and beyond who would prefer the adjective ‘historic’ to ‘old’ but I think the thing should have been left to rot. It’s a big wooden box, with a tilted porch (no good to sleep on, I mutter), and shuttered windows, about as inviting to laze around as a house warming party at a storage unit. Of course, the park service feels otherwise. Ironically, postcards of the Enchanted Valley show the ‘historic Chalet’ and not a bit of river or mountain, both there long before anyone thought of sticking in a tourist trap.

What really sticks my craw is that the building still stands, but went from being thoroughly open to the public, to mostly open, to marginally open, and the park service makes it very clear what a grand favor they are doing in leaving a plywood cell on the first floor available ‘for emergency use only,’ as has been papered everywhere. The frequency with which these words are used for a fifteen by fifteen foot unfurnished shoebox of a room is about as endearing as being given a nickel by a man in a Bentley and cautioned on all the ways it can be miss-spent.

However, the park service has no way to enforce what happens at the station since it is only seasonally operated, and if I wanted I could have had a right toasty orgy. Of course it would have had limited attendance, what with scarcity of available invitees (by my tally, one), and the backdrop outside the door was far preferable for anything I could conceive of doing save developing negatives.

Ideally, it should never have been restored. Or rather, not for the use to which it has been put. Were it restored to its original purpose, well then that would be something else. The chalet is not on a road. It lies about 13 miles from the nearest access by anything wheeled. Which means to reach it you need feet of some kind, your own or a horse’s. (something else I like immensely about the park: you cannot thru-drive, but you can thru ride) The traffic to reach it would remain of the same kind, but would probably increase in number if it were reopened. That doesn’t need to be tested. Consider that the chalet opened during the Depression and didn’t close because of lack of funds, but because the air force commandeered the place in 1943. When it returned to park hands, though they did not build it, nor pay for reparations after closing it, the park is the party to have benefited from all the hoopla.

So why not reopen the place? I would gladly pay $1.50 for a bed. I might reconsider when that figure is adjusted for inflation ($19.30 in today’s dollars) but I’m stingy. There are plenty of individuals who would gladly spend that for not having the ground under their back for a night. Even more so when they just rode 13 miles on horse to get to the place. The idea has a rugged charm most Americans would find irresistible. We long for the romance of a frontier setting, and I guess that’s why the postcards show frontstage the chalet than the more deserving and photogenic landscape.

And considering those mountains, there would be city folks and college students, foreign tourists and widows alike dying to get jobs cooking meals or filling bathtubs in a place too far for even the noise of engines to reach. They would of course be fit and worthy folk, as there is no way in nor out but by the forest paths, that the chalet could never turn into anything like Yosemite Valley. There would be only non electric entertainment in the form of river, grass, bear, light, elk, and rain. There would be conversations about what is truly important – how far away the stars are, how big a fire is too big a fire, why trees talk so quietly, why didn’t the Indians get giairdia? There would perhaps be more kindness – and more listening – in all those to visit. If it were a house of people, talking, sleeping, living, breathing, laughing, sharing and honoring silence and place, then I would celebrate such a house. That is the sort of house that could be in a valley like this.

And for emergency purposes, a single room on the first floor can be left open to park rangers.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A word on salmon

That word is delicious. Another good one would be tenacious. Resilient too might fit. And depending on your viewpoint, moribund. There is no single word that I could apply to best sum my thoughts, other than mandalic, which I don’t believe is an entry to be found in the Webster’s dictionary. What I mean though, is an object that is not thoughtful or inspiring in itself but enkindles those things in the beholder, to make the witness pause in thought, to be inspired not that the item exists, but how. Perhaps even to make seers inspiring themselves, as the lines, colors, and brevity of a sand mandala transcend the painted body to become together an item of wonder. And so, mandalic I will say, though I recognize the word could be applied to all of nature, from atoms to elephants and geodes to geoducks and granite peaks and geese in flight.

A salmon swimming upstream is a dead fish. In fact, though they are spawned, hatch, and develop to fingerlings in fresh water, they will only eat as adults in salt water. Once they reenter the stream where they were hatched, there’s no return ticket. The death mechanism is so strong that they begin to decompose long before they’ve even shed their eggs, before they’ve even had a chance to starve to death.

Their bodies of course had greatly physically changed at sea for the preparation of the return, bulked up to sleeves of solid muscle before the autumn rains came to flood their home stream. An adult salmon has the diet of a body builder – pure protein – and the physique to match. They are voracious feeders. They can’t afford the slightest bit of food that was not alive and wriggling before it went into their gut. More muscle means greater ability to dodge all the obstacles of a nomadic aquatic existence - herons, ospreys, orcas, sea lions, other salmon, fishing vessels, a thousand mile migration, locating the home stream, leaping sunken logs, waterfalls, bears, spear fishers, fish ladders, dams – before breeding and dying. And of course, during those last few, they are only feeding off reserves, like cars running off fumes. Or more accurately, like steamships ripping out the railings, benches, stacks, ribbing, passengers to keep the vessel going long enough so the engine can quit and sink in home port. And yet there’s still plenty left to a dead salmon. Look at a salmon that’s had a chance to die a natural death, and it’s like looking at a prostrate athlete. Live fast, die young, leave a good looking corpse.

This particular stream fed into one of the fish hatcheries run by the state of Washington. The state maintains 51 hatcheries, raising 16 species of fish – all game fish, not all native – and 5 species of salmon. They are usually set up where there is a fresh supply of clean, cold, well-oxygenated water. If the hatchery is raising any of the salmonids – that is salmon or trout – then it is always located by one, typically a stream the fish have historically frequented. The hatchery is set up with two dams bookending a large, rectangular pool. As the salmon swam up the fish ladder at the downstream dam, they enter the pool to find a gate blocking their passage at the upstream dam. They have entered the dark alleyway of the fish and wildlife service, which means if they want to reproduce, they’d better get randy here and drop their eggs. Once the fish get their funereal orgy done – and that’s honestly what it looks like, a zombie orgy – their bodies are scooped out – supposedly to prevent the spread of disease – and the eggs are vacuumed up to a holding tank to be meted out in growing beds where they will spend 6 months to a year growing big enough to get out to the ocean themselves.

It’s a clever system. Knowing the homing mechanism of an adult ensures that it will return to the same waters where it was an egg, the fish and wildlife service has exploited the drive to increase the number of successful fertilizations, hatchings, and formative stages from 10% in wild fish to better than 50%. The young, raised in tanks of water taken from this stream, when released to the wild will return to this same stream to breed and replenish the supply of salmon once more. A self-refueling, closed-loop. The benefit is obvious, more salmon.

More salmon means more food for everything that eats salmon. It means too more ocean nutrients that come to upstream ecosystems. So beneficiaries of the hatchery system include everything from orcas to ospreys and fishermen to alder trees. Too, fish and wildlife knows that fish need pure, clean water to thrive, and Washington has some impressive history regarding water purity, though not necessarily accessibility. Not bad for a porpoise and a woodland to get the big end of the stick thanks to politics and stewardship.

However, something about this particular hatchery rubbed me the wrong way. A net hung about ten feet off the water and a fence ran around the border, I suppose to detract people from gathering any, though by this point their meat is turning rank. You can even smell the stench from above water. This is the release of ocean nutrients that will feed bacteria that will feed amphipods and other freshwater invertebrates that will feed young fry. Smells about like you would expect a vat of rotting fish-water would smell. But that’s not what bothered me. That would happen anyway. Nor did the net or the fence get me in a huff. Those actually are the removal of obstacles, one less thing for salmon to worry about. What got me was the gate at the upstream end.

A barred gate separated the tank from the vacuum machine – at rest I suppose – and then about a 16 foot long run of shallow water – maybe 15 inches – to another gate of the same construction and then the stream, natural, beyond. So clean water is flowing freely from upstream, releasing all the sweet odor of water space where no fish has yet met its end in orgasm, around the raving the mouths of desperate fish. Standing by the hatchery pool, I would hear the boil of too many fish in too small a place accented by the thunk of scales on steel as they rammed from underwater to keep going, everything in the body saying ‘not here.’ Again the sound would be shot with an excited clang as an anxious, not dead-enough individual leaps to clear the gate and body slams the bars, not having jumped quite high enough.

Sometimes, though, they do. There to be confronted with a run of water too short and too shallow to clear the final gate. A dozen cadaverous fish from the thousand in the pool behind now waited to die behind the bars. These were the toughest, most resolute, most daring fish that after dealing with all the other things that mean death to the migratory on the way out and then all over again in the reverse order on the way back, plus a few new ones, were defeated in the final measure by a 4 by 6 foot section of grate, denied the final yards, or inches, to the final - and only - resting place.

I want to be clear. In this matter I am not an environmentalist. I am a sentimentalist. Fish and wildlife insists that hatcheries are a necessity to maintain the salmon population, and they have certainly done good things. Clean water, healthy marine mammal populations in the sound, seals as far south as Olympia, orcas off Seattle’s warves, and Washington, unlike California, still has both a commercial and a sport fishing industry. (Though I would point out that the position of supposed need is only due to the recklessness at which fish have been harvested in the past and how they have traditionally had their habitat treated – a telling point, more than 40% of historical salmon habitat in Washington is still inaccessible due to dams lacking fish ladders.) And yes, if the goal of the species is to procreate, then the hatcheries are the best ally the salmon ever had as fertility and juvenile mortality rates go.

But dammit, a fish that can swim thru thousands of miles of ocean and then as far as thru 900 miles of freshwater while climbing as high as 7000 feet up to the creeks of the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho has a greater ration of my respect. I took my boots off and waded into the hatchery creek, took out the gate, and lay it on the grass. The last dozen fish could find their graves further upstream. I am not being thrifty here, or civic minded, or even "green." A fish that determined deserves to die where it wants.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


I never told about what happened between Portland and my gut issues. Here I will. 

Portland is a fine city, a good place to be young and progressive and without a car. I remember being struck the first time I was there that not only were thete bicycle lanes available, but people used them. When I borrowed a bicycle myself, I would often be stopped at a traffic light with five other cyclists. I rolled for a few days, instead of walking, going to Powell's, Washington Park - the rose garden, the Shakespeare garden - farmer's market, Pioneer Square, and the Willamette, where I swam daily, though not across this time. Nice as it was, however, I wanted to be drinking water that had come running off a glacier and picking wild plants to make my tea.

A week was just enough city time to stock up for the three weeks it would take me to get to Olympia. On the way I would climb Mt St Helens and gaze into the crater, counting still smoking  fumaroles. I would spend five days in the park, much of which would be spent on the Lewin trail around the mountain and the Mt Margaret backcountry. Views of Mt Hood which had loured over my path since Silverton gave over to Adams and then Rainier as St Helens came between. It was all alpine passes over boulders burnt black, deep ravines of glacial rivers, and raked gorges where the bear grass was only starting to grow back three decades after the eruption. The fantastic country felt strange and great, open and obvious in a land otherwise soaked in timber. The pummice desert of the plains of Abraham was more Nevada than Washington, only some scarce lupines among the bleached trunks of blasted spruce.

I took the trail to Spirit Lake. The slide down is choked in thimbleberry and salmonberry and alder, but the shores are mostly open, save for the logs that still float on it after an 800 foot high wave came off the lake as a result of the blast and washed the hills bare. From there, I went up and around to the Mt Margaret backcountry. The ledges are narrow and the paths long, but the scenery makes one question the aesthetics of modern choices, from architecture to recreation. That is to say, when there exists something so beautiful so abundant and so free - a backcountry pass costs exactly nothing - you would think people would be scrambling all over it. Yet in 23 miles of trail I saw 18 people. 2 of those were further than a mile from the road. I saw more elk than that.  

In a way this pleased me. I had the mountains and lakes mostly to myself. I'm sure it made the elk happy too. However, it just got me thinking on how nature is experienced here - via postcards and documentaries and scenic highways. This isn't news to anyone. 93% of the 3.7 million people who visit Yosemite National Park never leave the valley floor, an area of 18 square kilometers in a park 3,080 km square. And even then, they're mainly on the thin ribband of road and the giftshop at Curry Village. So much less is the traffic at St Helens, and so much less the people who leave the roads. Those who do are ones like myself, determined to get some wilderness experience - spiritual food, if you will - or like the two mountain biking women in their 60s, who had abs you could bust walnuts on. That is to say it seems the trend of folks in the woods are of two groups, those who read Whitman and Carson and those who have subscriptions to Outside magazine and have the Patagonia outlet on speed dial.   

I don't mean to offend the adrenaline community. I am glad for them. We have good times, albeit frustrating when I ask them about the flora growing from the cracks of a rockface they're climbing and they try talking to me about v5.7 climbs, whatever those are. But what I want to point out is that there used to be a lot more folks in the woods. There used to be families going on camping trips, and birdwatchers, and berry pickers, and kids smoking dope and building fires and doing stuff in the bushes. I don't see most of those anymore, and from what I understand, even when I started getting more and more into the outdoors, the trend was already on the decline. Nature is often seen as too hostile to family friendly activities, or too far away, though kids love the wonder of crawling thru leaves, gazing at stars, setting marshmallows afire, the possibility of getting eaten by bears miles away from home. The distance, both physically and mentally, becomes the treasure. Most birdwatchers I understand watch their backyard feeders and keep their fingers crossed for the life bird they've been waiting for. The berry pickers go to safeway. My one hope is the dope smoking, fornicating, pyromaniac teenagers have gotten far more clever than I ever was and they're still out there, having visions and being shameless as is their right. "Nature is so amazing," one such youth once confided to me, "when you're stoned."

For someone who enjoys solitude, this may seem a paradox, but I am for more people in the woods. Or the desert. Or the ocean. Or volcano. Or whatever wild space is available to them. Nature is completely democratic, ever present, open every day, one of the best ideas the US never came up with. It is meant to be shared. Let there be land where one can walk as the ancestors did, and may you go there. 

Notice I wrote walk. Edward Abbey came up with many fine suggestions to the national park service, which you are welcome to find for yourself in his book Desert Solitaire, not least among them was his suggestion to make all parks roadless. I would agree that folks should be outside of a vehicle more. Driving thru a park does not count as a nature experience despite the scenery come thru the windows any more than going thru a drive thru take-out counts as dining. This is part of a disturbing trend I have heard called encapsulation. The idea is that modern humans live essentially on lock down - inside one box, then rolling on a wheeled box to enter another box to look at a box for most of the day and order boxes. We live and transport ourselves as though we were hazardous waste, sensitive to daylight, fearful of the destruction we could wreak upon the countryside if we leaked out.

To be fair, our track record is not great on this count. Recent events in the gulf of Mexico are sober reminder indeed. But unlike the national park service reminds - leave no trace, stay on trail, camp only in designated sites - for most of human history we've had good interaction with nature. Like any relationship, one based upon respect and reverence lasts longer than one of lazy reliance, or worse, indifference. I have seen many people treat their cars as space stations and they astronauts reluctant to leave the assured safety of it's fragrant interior. When they go on their hikes they leave as outfitted for a space walk, all water, food, clothing, entertainment brought along. The sole demands on the world to provide pleasant backdrop and oxygen. 

The national park service definitely encourages this so as to present what a world might be like without human intervention. If such was the stated goal, I might be all in favor for the gradual phasing out of humans in all ecosystems. However, seeing as that is likely to be unpopular with the less radical, I think such an approach treats nature as a fragile butterfly in a bell jar that we must protect lest it shatter. That's a load oh hokum, but some - frightfully, I fear, most - consider it so. The truth is that nature is never so precious. Despite the number of trees that have been cut since I wrote this, the number of beaches polluted, and the number of endangered species eaten, nature is in crouch, bemusedly waiting for the moment to beat us senseless, or more likely let us do it ourselves. The approach of being completely handsoff I find just as ludicrous as complete conquest. Should I not gather twigs for cook wood but use a liquid fuel that came from a process that fouls the air and incites wars and if it leaks can poison groundwater for decades? Should I not pick a plant and eat it as the deer do but pack in a salad that came from labor exploitation and had to be trucked a thousand miles?

I am for more interaction with nature not just as background or gymnasium or trophy but as pharmacy and market and church. There are of course limitations. I do not wish to be a hunter gatherer. Or rather, not solely a hunter gatherer. I like pie. And pineapples too, come to that. And asking everyone to go out and gather significant portions of their groceries from the woods and the ocean would place far too great a strain. But having portions from time to time - eating locally, no? - destroys the fallacy that food comes from the grocers, medecine from the doctor as well as giving the small dose of machismo that it is possible to live off the land that so many Americans crave. But namely, it let's one participate in the ecosystem and not just pass thru it, or regard it as pretty, or untouchable. 

There are some easy ways of doing this. Get a guide book, get lost, drink the water, get dyssentery, feed mosquitoes, eat some berries, catch a salmon, chew on a twig, brew wild tea, lap up dew, lick tree sap. Get eaten by a bear, if need be. It will prove you are not immune to the rhythms of this world but get you again in fliw with them. Otherwise, handsoff, you might as well be an observant scientist of an alien civilization. 

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The ecosystem within

After Mt St Helens and Rainier, I'm dry docked in Olympia with what is likely the result of drinking untreated water. I think it was Euell Gibbons who had written that he never bothered to treat backcountry water since it was man and not nature that made things impure. I figured to follow the same advice - the Indians didn't get giardia, afterall - and drank deeply and fully from glacial melt streams, springs, and rain fed rills. Always treat backcountry sources I had been told, but why if, as Euell said, there was no industry or settlement to fear? I wasn't going to get cholera, unless some particularly bad-off climber had expired on the snowpack and rotted down. I was more worried about stubbing toes or getting bitten by a mouse. 

Now three days into stomach pains and nausea I'm thinking over which source, if any, was the culprit. Of them all - and there have been many since I started walking in May - the most likely are the most recent. Single-celled intestinal parasites typically have an incubation period of a week. Though in some cases cysts have lain dormant for months or even years in their hosts.

For those most celebrated single cell invaders - amoebic dyssentery, giardia - the commonly prescribed treatment in the US is several weeks of a powerful antibiotic typically given to patients in the advanced stages of syphilis. That is to say that it cleans out anything nonhuman in you, such as all those helpful bacteria in your small intestine that enable you to properly digest your food, have regular bowel movements, and fart. Patients during treatment typically get diarhea, in addition to intense stomach cramps, and loss of appetite, though no longer from the microorganism but the medications. Though presently I do have  what some would call a crook stomach and I'm not very hungry and have had to use a bathroom with rather greater frequency and rather less enthusiasm than I should like, the symptoms I have at present aren't nearly as bad as the cure. And in retrospect, not very different from other post-backcountry excursion states of being. I had plenty of pains when I worked for the Appalachian Mountain Club and hiking in California and in Europe. And a fair number of people recover from such infections without medical intervention, typically in a week to two weeks. 

But what's really fascinating is that when the little guys now colonizing a fresh digestive system feel like they're ready for a break, they just burrow into the intestinal lining and encyst themselves into dormancy. Which means that during their hibernation, you can feel perfectly healthy, indeed, BE healthy, while they sleep. Then, when they feel it is right, months or even years later, they reactivate. So if I've had waterborne sickness in the past and gotten over it, it either means I've got a good enough gut to kill those suckers after a few days, or, the buggers never left and like unwelcome relations like to drop in every now and again, typically after vacations. 

I salute that kind of tenacity. But whatever is in me I still want gone. Turns out garlic is a fairly potent medecine against intestinal infection. And as my gut has encountered it before, there shouldn't be any hellish cramps or rectal fauceting brought on my this treatment. I have so far eaten four cloves today, and won't sleep till I've had four more. I'm going to be eating garlic like popcorn for the next week. 

And tomorrow, I'm going to a doctor. 

And then I'm going to climb Mt Olympus. 

Friday, August 27, 2010

Silverton, OR

There was a good house I stayed in, and good friends nearby, but two weeks in one place without working there was enough. I stayed so long as I felt welcome, and left still welcome, which I suppose marks a good exit. But really I had stayed for an invitation.

One of the cafe girls had invited me to the going away party of a friend of hers. As it was to be a going away-talent show, and I had been telling stories for tips at the Saturday market, she thought I'd be a good addition to the list, but the party would not be until the following Thursday. I was in no hurry, so I tacked another week onto my first. 

That thursday came around, however, and her friend had changed his mind and moved the party to the following week. Would I stick around till the next Thursday? That would make three weeks, and I was getting ansy to go. Well, then where would I be staying on my way to Portland? Would I pass thru Silverton? She was moving there that weekend. Would I stay with her? 

Of course I would. So I took down her number and said my goodbyes.

I just followed the roads of the Willamette Valley north, they obligingly running due true in that direction. I did not pause much, doing around 30 miles a day with the exception of one 17 mile day because I took my time to enjoy a morning in Corvallis. 

On a long stretch of straight nothing I got passed by this guy:

A unicycle is rare on any occasion, but odder still when the only other things moving were the dust devils over the wheat fields. There were hardly even any cars that day. We figured each other for mutual travelers (was it the backpacks?) and stood on the roadside talking for a bit.

I like the idea of this. It's not just what he is doing - riding from Virginia to Oregon is an impressive feat of endurance, whether on bicycle, or horse, or homemade rocketship - but the chosen method - a unicycle?! - is a necessary touch of whimsy. It surprises people out of whatever they had been preoccupied with. I like the idea of living each day expecting odd moments of beauty and poise will happen.

Looking at my maps in Corvallis, it looked like the easiest way to Silverton was to follow the solid red line of Buena Vista road across the river at the town of the same name. Arriving at the riverbank proved otherwise. I would have to take a ferry across. A ferry that did not operate on Mondays, and furthermore had closed the day previous for the season. I could wait for an obliging boater to help me across or walk the seven miles to Independence. I couldn't make seven more miles before dark, so I walked onto the idle ferry boat and looked for my means to cross. 

On the bank opposite, a man in a pickup was loading a motorboat onto a trailer. Although I've had a prohibition against motorized vehicles, I realized I may have to compromise my principles if I want to have more time in Silverton. I hollered, I waved, no response. 

The Wilammette at Buena Vista is about 90 meters wide and split in two around a sandbar. The fork nearest me is shallow and swift, but not too broad. I strip down, get a good dive off the ferry and clear it with a few hard strokes. 

Now crossing the other fork, a jetski shoots down from upstream. The driver does not appear to see me - white guy with a shaved head in a dark river? I look like a buouy - and heads straight for me. I wave wildly, and he swerves to avoid me and loops back upstream. The moment sets me off course, and I get swept downstream out of sight and earshot of the pickup. I swim hard against the current near shore, where it's not as strong, and come out huffing, just as he starts to pull away.

It wasn't easy convincing him he should stop to listen to the out-of-breath babbling of a guy who just popped up from the water. Harder still to convince him to help mr across. I succeeded in the first, not in the second. Flat tire, he says, pointing. He's going to get it fixed. I walk back to the river. 

I don't have my glasses on, so I can't see across. There's a woman with her daughter and grandkids. Briefly, I explain how my pack is on the other side and I'm hoping to get everything over to this side. She says there are some guys in a blue rowboat on the other side. I holler. I wave. No response. I'll have to swim the river again. 

No jetskis now, but this time I don't have a ferry to push off of, and I'm tired. I reach the other fork, and the current takes me, flipping me over, rolling me against the stones, taking me downstream. These are not rapids, but plenty fast that there's no way I can fight them. Hastily, I remember my high school physics: perpendicular variables operate independent of each other. I swim straight for shore, get snagged on a half-submerged tree, crawl up it, and go off the other side. I get to a rocky patch and find the boaters I'm looking for - two teenagers with an inflatable raft. There's no way they can help me across. After that, even if they had a rowboat, it wouldn't have been any better.

"That was sick when that jetski almost took off your head!" one of them gushes. 

I get back on the ferry, dry off, put my clothes back on. There's a homeless guy who has been watching me this whole time. 

" I could do that too, when I was 30," he says. 

"I didn't do it because I wanted to," I explain. 

And then, delicate as a pair of drifting geese, two motorboats come down river. I wave. I holler. I see them talking to the grandmother on the other shore. They turn their boats and make for the landing on their side.

"They see you," says the homeless guy, "and they're not coming across." He says it with resentment. I don't even care at this point. I put on my pack and start walking for Independence.

I get there the next morning, eat breakfast quick, and head for Salem before the heat picks up. I take a midday break at the Coffee House around 2, and get kicked out at 4 for falling asleep on their couch. No matter, Silverton is now 12 miles away and it's only 4 on a Tuesday. 

A few times I think I should camp out and just get to Silverton in the morning, but I rationalize that even if I get there late, I get a shower and a friend's company, neither of which I'd have camping in a wheatfield. It's dark when I get there, and only one place open on the main drag. I ask for their telephone and make to call, but I've lost the number. I look all thru my iPod where I wrote it down when she dictated it to me, but it is not there. I send her a message on the wifi, and wait till 10. Still no answer, I find an old van by the river, and sleep next to it, hidden from view from the houses above. 

Next morning, messaging her and anyone I knew connected to her, I get a response at 11. She went to Eugene early. She will not be back till Friday, possibly monday. No, probably Monday. Will I be around Silverton till then? 

I go to the Towne House diner on Main Street and tear out a blank page from the book I am reading - "The Social Contract" by Rousseau. I can imagine all the things I want to say, how what was going to be a funny story for when I got to Silverton has instead become the unfortunate story of why I am in Silverton. I debate guilting her - I walked 80 miles! I swam a river! Twice! - but think better on it. Guilt wouldn't do much, and there is the very good chance she will never get this. So instead I write out all I really need to say and give it to the waitress with the request that she hold it for the addressee. She's a good woman, Patrice, my one friend in Silverton. She holds the note and gives me her own address so I can mail her a postcard when I get to Canada (she received the entire story, graciously, without offering criticism or sympathy over the hours I spent in her diner). I get my pack back on and head for Portland, getting there mid-afternoon of the following day.  

This was the note, three words and my name:

"I was here." 

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Eugene Part II: Worst Act of the Year

The reason Eugene became something of a home to me was mostly because of Carol Melia. We met at a Hiroshima and Nagasaki Vigil in Alton Baker Park. After about five minutes of conversation, and hearing that I am a musician, she invited me to stay at her house, or in her backyard. I chose to sleep on her trampoline and spent another week in Eugene. 

Carol is a sweet soul of a cellist, whose ample supply of instruments I made good use of. Guitars, banjos, mandolins, ukuleles, tambourines, flutes, and some other random ones I couldn't name. Each day meant music of some sort, either with Carol or out on the town with whomever I could find. I had a singalong with a friend at the U of O, regaled the staff of the nameless cafe, found someone better than me to teach me something. 

The first week of August means fruits and nuts are in season all over Eugene. So many people had been so friendly to me that when I saw a glistening, red plum hanging over the sidewalk I just reached out a plucked it. I was turning it over in my hand when the man on the porch spoke up. 

"They're not ripe yet."

I made a hasty agreement, rather than further get in his badside, and gave him good afternoon, walking off. 

"Thanks for asking," he grumbled as I walked away. At first I felt some shame for having taken fruit from his tree. But then I got to thinking, not how i had a right to fruit hanging over the sidewalk, or that cantankerous old men need to learn to share. Instead on thinking over how I had just acted and everything I had done previously, I realized that this one act was probably the worst thing i had done the entire year, countingback to the August before. I had not gotten into an argument, insulted anyone, cut anyone off in traffic, wished ill on someone. The worst I had done was pick a plum. A good year, then.  

I planted the stone. That should do something to make up for it. And while I don't particularly wish to go thru life without making mistakes, I do aim to keep this as my worst act for awhile longer.    

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Eugene: part I - Listening and Telling

I went to Eugene for one reason alone; Dolly Parton wrote a song about it.

If it's good enough for Dolly, then it's good enough for me, I figured. And she was right. I went into town on August 1st and didn't leave till two weeks later. Eugene is a place where everything just felt right, mostly for two establishments, Carol Melia's house and a nameless cafe on the corner of Patterson and 13th. I'll start there. 

Coming into town off the trail, with better than a week's worth of grime on me and a month's growth of beard, I was on a hunt for a good cup of Earl grey. Call me Lawrence. I was yearning to reenact the scene where he stumbles into the officers' bar in Cairo for a lemonade. And so I came to the nameless cafe. 

It is, as you would expect, a cafe with no name. If you look for it now, you won't find it. They closed the day before I left town. I walked in, grimed over in a pitted t-shirt that had been white, now the color of northern California and most of Oregon. I may have made a pitiable appearance, since the girl behind the counter gave me my tea free of charge. I'm not ashamed of handouts. The day before, sitting on a street corner just because I was tired, a guy not much better off than I looked gave me three dollars. I let him feel he was helping me out, because he was. And this girl was helping me out. Honestly, it wasn't a good cup, but I went back every day I was in town till it closed. 

The reasons were simple, the staff were friendly and talkative, the customers were eccentric and likeable, and the two girls who worked the counter were cute. I had no pressing business than to drink tea, make eye contact, and argue with a regular as to the definition of 'cavalier' and whether or not I fit the description. 

Cavalier - n. One having the courtly bearing of a knight; gallant; adj. haughty, disdainful, or supercilious; having an arrogant attitude; offhand or unceremonious

He was sure I have a yacht secreted somewhere and make a show of my poverty. There is no yacht, but I'm not so naive to think that he was in all ways incorrect.

I had been thinking a lot about this story - this walk - and of another. In India - i do not know whoch part - there is the story of Bharat, a braggart who tells everyone of the great things he has done and will do. Seeing a mountain, he points to it and declares he will be the first to climb it. He has a flag made of bright cloth and shows it to everyone he meets, telling them that when they see it atop the mountain they will know that he, Bharat, has climbed the peak. He does get there, having spent much effort to reach the summit, and there he sees flapping in the breeze, hundreds of flags from dozens of nations. Dejected, he stows his flag and walks down the mountain. There he meets an old man who asks why he looks so down. Bharat tells his story and the old man answers, 'you were not the first, but you did it just the same. Do you have to tell everyone about your life?'

I've known that story for a long time, but never thought about it truly in reference to myself until recently. Before I left, I told nearly everyone I knew about what I was doing, where I was going, how great I would be, the principles I would follow to give my walk a pseudo-biblical air - no vehicles, gathered food, accepting what i was offered but not asking. I contacted schools, radio stations, and outing clubs, asking if they would like me to speak with them when I reached their towns. Once i began walking, simple questions like "where do you work?" and "where is home?" i answered with lengthy explanations of what i am doing and why, rather than giving the simpler, though incomplete, answers they wanted. I was too proud of my humility. I was inviting the world to watch who I was becoming. 

I set up a blog. 

It shouldn't be surprising. With cell phones, facebook, Twitter, and blogs, there are abundant opportunities to present just how amazing we feel we are to the rest of the world. I just hadn't realized that I was following the same seductions. To my mind, all the mountains had been climbed, all the rivers crossed, the jokes been told, the love made before I even left. I had lived it all in my imagination that the physical journey would be outward projection of what had already been had. The idea of the adventure became the thing itself. 

The radio stations, schools, outing clubs, and all the others realized that and offered encouragement, but no invitations. For they, this is a story in wait. Nothing great has happened yet, according to them. And they may be right.

At any rate, even if something had, why would it need be told? I've been thinking about that a lot. How would I live my life if I could tell no one about it? If everything I did would never be discussed over dinner, behinds microphone, on a page, on a pillow, would I do things any differently?

So I've decided to tell no new people. I will keep the blog, and others can tell what they like, but i've given up announcing to the world what they can expect of me. A friend quoted to me this verse of the bible, "Boast not thyself of tomorrow; for thou knowest not what a day may bring forth."

Life is what happens when you are making other plans. Considering the billions of people who have led unexceptional lives, and the millions who didn't but never spoke of it, there's little reason, and not much precedent, for me to go shouting. I am not great now, and don't expect to ever be, and that's fine. Comforting even. It gives more opportunities for mistakes, more space to be forgiven, more chances to get it right. 

Maybe then I may actually succeed in giving more than the appearance of being humble, but true humility itself. And in so doing, be more able to take in what I am offered.  

"I think I will do nothing now - 
But listen. 
To accrue what I hear into myself- 
To let sounds contribute towards me"
~ Walt Whitman

Monday, August 23, 2010

Missing Out

The air was good at Crater Lake, but I did have to get out. The question was which way. 

Originally, I had wanted to follow the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) across Oregon but got turned off to that idea for a few small reasons and one big one. The small ones were mostly about other hikers: I didn't like the competition, the fast pace thru nature without looking otherwise (forty miles a day!), the conversations about miles and gear (anybody want to talk about wildflower? Birds? Zeppelin?). Early August is when the first of the thru hikers come thru Oregon, so to be fair, later on I may have met more of the people who consider the trail less of a trophy or sport and more as a long meditation. It may just have been the time of year. I won't say it's wrong, but it's certainly not my thinking.

But hikers can easily be overlooked. One mostly does the PCT alone, seeing people only at the edges of the day. The mosquitoes, however, could not be overlooked. According to the park rangers at Crater Lake, there were at least another hundred miles of bugs north of the park. These would be bugs as bad as what I came thru, clouds of mosquitoes that you breath in, that find any exposed flesh and eat it, no matter how furtively exposed. I tried, once, to relieve myself in the 70 miles before the park. It was one of the more hellish experiences of my life. My derriere was porcupined with sucking probosces. I tightened my abs and wrung my digestive tract like a tube of toothpaste so I need never crap again, then ran for my tent and spent the next half hour scratching. I wasn't worried about infection. I figured my skin would come off first. 

So it was an easy chpice to take the road instead of the trail. The open space of asphalt, and probably something in the tar, keeps the mosquito population down to just about nothing. Bliss. According to the park rangers I'd be missing out if i skipped the next section of PCT. And they were right, I'd be missing out on one hundred miles of blood loss and constipation. The PCT is not, and has never been, my goal. What great country am I seeing if I have to flail myself with every step? Considering I can see the same lands, or others equally great, when conditions are more favorable, then wading thru insect clouds to do it would give me bragging rights on stupidity and nothing else. I wanted to get to Crater Lake, and I was there. Now it was time to leave. I took the road to Eugene, found a hotspring the next day, and at sinset soaked myself for an hour by the bug free banks of the Willamette. Yes, I was missing out.  

Monday, August 16, 2010

Crater Lake

Several times I have heard people call my trip a pilgrimage, and once I was called a prophet. I don't agree with the last and find little in support of the first. Whenever I thought of a pilgrimage it had always involved travel to a holy site, or perhaps several, where one could see the preserved remains of some saint or stand where ecstacy had occurred.

 As I approached Crater Lake the trip took the feel of an approach to the sacred. I left Oregon Caves National Monument, where my friend Marie "Moose" was working, after staying there for some days to make my way to the lake. The route was not direct, taking me over trails and forest service roads, leading me first to high alpine meadows where in July the first of the sprin flowers pushed thru the snow. To the south, where the blue of the sky mixed with the blue of the land, the ragged cap of Shasta hung, present as moonrise.

 For days it haunted me as I walked. While I never got close enough to see the rock that lofted the ice skyward, I did not need to get closer to feel the power of such a mountain, solitary and monolithic. Three nights I would watch twilight keep the peak lit till last. Somewhere near Lake Hyatt I would see it last, as I followed the Pacific Crest Trail into a long tunnel of fir that emptied to a lodgepole forest in the midst of insect bloom. Forty miles of mosquitoes that made shadows thick as your own around your head that breathing seemed equal parts air and insect. Then snow, then a burned out landscape of ash and blackened stump, then the pumice desert, a last curtain of mosquitoes, and the final three thousand feet to the lake itself. 

I arrived at the perfect moment, when thunder threatened but never came and no wind blew that clouds drifted harmlessly over a five mile wide reflecting pool of the purest clarity. There was hardly a ripple on the surface that the lake was as pure as a blue hole. The water was so perfected as to make the sky seem the immitation. Looking eastward from the western rim, the rim opposite did not seem so much the completion of the caldera that made the lake, but an arch, placed on its side, thru which one might pass to a different world, or else fall forever into sky. Whether or not that would be better or worse than to be on this earth, it would for sure be a damn lot bluer.

For those who have not been there, it may be difficult to understand the intensity of color. The lake, being five miles wide and 1949 feet deep, has no streams to feed it. Snowmelt and rain are the only sources of water. And so no silt to muddy it up. This means water so pure a white disc can still be clearly seen forty two feet from the surface. It is so startlingly clear that blue is not only reflected from the sky, but refracted and magnified with incoming light that the lake becomes a vast eye many times bluer than anything over it. So blue that it is a color that seems alive, and to look at it feels an act of worship, like contemplating a mandala, or the Madonna and child, or the rose window of Chartres (itself blue, but good, hopping, glory, not blue like this!). It feels so satisfying to consider it that looking away afterwards leaves one feeling insufficient and hungry to look again. This is a place of greatness, and of healing, another place where the power of the world is felt. 

I climbed Mt. Garfield, an easy peak on the southwestern rim, and then kept going after the trail stopped, following the rim to a small knot of pines. Under them I made my camp. No people, no roads in sight, just I and the lake. My tent window faced the phantom ship, an eroded pinnacle island near the lake shore. The drop a few feet from the door was steep, but still the lake did not look so far away. There was much pumice around from the explosion that made the lake. I threw a stone as hard as I could. After more than five seconds it landed far short of the water. A drop of more than a thousand feet. Probably as far above the water as the lake was deep. 

I had the sensation of the two principle characters of the motorcycle diaries. Having traveled far and learned much they reach the lonesome peak of Machu Pichu, there to contemplate the lonely holdout in solitude. I have never been there, but the words they said I remember. "How is it possible that I can feel nostalgia for a world I never knew?"

While I have wished to have been born earlier, i am glad I did not come to this world any later. This is a world I am knowing. The knowledge isn't complete. The wind picked up as thunderclouds rolled it, stirring the lake. Hailstones came down. I howled, I roared, I yodeled, I whupped. And then I sat in silence. 

The word prophet comes from the ancient Greek prophetas, "one touched with divine madness."             

Friday, August 6, 2010

Not always a poet

I had thought, in the last days and miles of California, that I would need some time at the border to reflect on all the great things that I had gained from my time there. Nowhere else had I been that felt so abundantly present and safe. Even the shape of the state, two great ranges of mountains circled around a five hundred mile long valley, suggested two hands, cupped, palm upwards, holding the yosemite, sequoia, San Joaquin, redwood. I, too, was held there. There should be gratitude for that. 

And yet, when I saw the sign that told me I was now in another state, all I could think was "Holy shit! I walked to Oregon??"

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


Again, I stood in redwoods, from Hunboldt, thru Prairie Creek, to Jebediah Smith parks. I had seen many redwoods before, but never like this. Here were some pure stands of the tree, only some sword ferns and sorrel beneath. There was a path to follow thru Founders Grove. So I took it for as long as it could teach me, then went over the land as the first people had.

The natives of this land did not go into the redwood forest since it did not hold much in the way of food or shelter and grizzly bears were abundant. Even when the Anglo-americans came, it was still nearly a hundred years before manageable ways to cut the trees were devised, and so thankfully public sentiment had a chance to build to a preservation movement - the Save the Redwoods League - before the last of the greats were cleared away. This then is a land that, aside from a single trail, has never known the touch of man. 

These trees stand now as they did when the gates shut on Eden and the last whispers of creation could still be heard. They are not of our time. Nor are they from another lost one. They are separate, immune to hours, and years, as they pass from age to age. These are the relic reminders of the greatness the earth held - and is yet capable of - that to stand before them shod seemed transgression. This is sacred ground. Here I am confronted with the terrible silence of the great.

Comparisons are sometimes made between places of natural beauty and manmade churches and temples. But what are those artfucial structures but attempts to recreate the natural? I have been to the medieval churches of Europe, and the experience was not a bit like this. Those places were packed with people, cameras, gift shops, commodifying a god they sold every Sunday. If these trees were at all like a temple, it would be like those ancient ones of Egypt and India that I have heard of but never seen and so which have always been pure places - in my mind - of high empty vaults where the wind blows against stone. Surely there is no place I can otherwise liken this to, for there is nowhere like it.

This is the way to experience nature. Go into it thinking you might not get out. Learn to accept it. Then, to prefer it. I made sure to go far enough and to take enough turns to get lost. 

At dark, I crawled into the duff in the fire-scarred hollow of a Titan and slept. In the morning I wandered till I found an elderly couple from Ohio looking at a fallen tree. After speaking with the woman for ten minutes I realized that the entire conversation we had was in hushed whispers, as though wary of rousing the giants. But truly, it was in reverence. We were respectful of the indifference without arrogance that these trees emanate. They seem held in a great patience, awaiting the trumpets, or the return of the dinosaurs, or some distant event beyond our limited grasp, that whatever we pygmies do in their shadow is nothing to them. Even with the decay and death of the largest, new growth quickly emerges to shoot, wait, and outlast us in turn, as days, years, and centuries mold to redwood.

Thursday, July 1, 2010


I've never felt alone in nature. Solitude has never seemed to me as something to be avoided, nor even truly possible, since I was always approaching something. Only a day out from Willits I was suddenly alone as I followed the rails that would lead me to Eureka. The trains hadn't run in decades. In parts it seemed the tracks need only be dusted off to again be in use. In other sections some archaeology may be required to exhume whats been buried in landslides.

Since the rails traced the Eel River, though usually some sixty to a hundred and twenty feet above it, I had imagined there would be more towns along the course of it. I have been told I have an imagination that makes the world better than it is, and so it was again here. For three days running I had only myself for company - not a fisherman, a kayaker, or a person just walking besides myself. Never had there been a day before when I had gone out into the world and seen no one. There were signs aplenty that there had been people - a shot up sign, a collapsed shack, a conspicuously intact bottle of crown royal, and always the rails - but no people themselves.

Each bend in the river meant either another tunnel to pass thru or another collapse to scramble over. One bend obliged me with both. Half of a tunnel had fallen in, bringing the mountain with it, creating a canted boulder hill, 45 degrees in pitch. None of the stone, however, was made of anything more solid than slate, clay, and mud, stuck together and dried. Too much pressure on one point, or sudden shifts, meant that the stone beneath could shatter and slip like segments of a peeled orange. Some sedges and grasses grew in the more stable places, but the banks of the river some 80 feet below held the shreds of brush that mountain was shucking off now that there was no longer some pestering machine to crawl over it each day.

As I made my way over, a deer jumped from the hollows between two boulders where it had crouched to avoid the heat of the day. His antlers were still coated in velvet. I've never thought of the blacktailed deer as a particularly agile creature, but he leapt from rock to rock sending only the barest ration of pebbles skittering with each hit of his hooves. Surely, I could not do so well as that, but slowly worked my way across, stepping over what I could avoid stepping on, stepping around where I could avoid stepping over. This got me only so far before I found myself at the edge of a scree patch. Any footing one could comfortably get was now in a configuration of a dot held between two dashes. That is, there was the boulder patch, then a single rock, and then after, the broken steel of the rails and the remaining length of tunnel. Separating the three were two scree patches - that is, loose stone not any larger than olives piled many feet thick that has about the solidity of playing dice. Moving over any patch of it must be done quickly and cautiously.

The smarter, though admittedly longer way, would have been to have followed the boulder field down to the river, take off my boots, and wade upstream till I could find a place to climb up again. Instead, without any space to gather speed, I jumped as far as I could, and made the rock, four limbs gripping. Then, I felt my pack slip, drawing me away, pulling my fingers into lengthened arches. I had a few moments to think, though really that's much to polite a word for it. I don't think my brain was much involved, though I knew there could be no way to get down the scree patch without some serious risk. There really wasn't much choice to it. So, I launched off what I could, sank one foot on the scree, and shot into the tunnel, running.

It was not a very long tunnel. In fact, I did not even have to run all the way thru it to make it to the other side in under a minute. I began walking again, with deliberation, so as to induce calm even if I myself was not. Above me swallows flew in an out of the standing arch as of the apse of a church, and they the frescoes come to life. I sat on the rails and lit a cigarette in the crown of my hat. I'm not of the habit of smoking, but certain situations require it.

I wouldn't mind dying out here, even by violent means provided it were done quickly. A lightning strike, or falling from a cliff and bursting like a bag of ripe strawberries, would not trouble me. Had I slipped and broken a leg, or my neck, I might have had to have waited some time for anyone to find me. Or even as has happened to others, dry out in my waiting as days cede to days. It's an inelegant way to go. That may not be likely in a place such as the Eel, but it was a new idea to me then, and may come with greater reason in other spaces. This was only the first.

Sunday, June 20, 2010


After San Francisco, I went over the Marin Headlands, across Tamalpais, and down to Bolinas and Point Reyes before turning inland again. There is no nicer flower pasture than the headlands when in bloom. The setting sun makes the grass look all of strands of gold and mallow and mariposa lilies stick their heads up like buttons thru the thread. Swallows flew and turned in the air. I've recently learned that these birds get most of their water requirements from condensation on the grass. I can well understand why they might seem to fly for nothing but joy. Had I the swallow's wings these are fields over which I would gladly fly to drink the dew in flight.

So much of this is lately come here. Before the Spanish, the golden hills kept their green all the summer through. The perennial native grasses could not hold up against the annuals brought by the Europeans. When the land was overgrazed, the annuals came back the faster. Then the oaks were cut, and new trees brought in from Australia to fuel the need for railroad ties in the growing state. Foreign succulents from South Africa were imported for their use in stabilizing sand dunes. Exotics from the world over became the flowers of Victorian gardens of the bay, soon to rediscover the wilds themselves. And then there were any number of seeds that just happened to come, stuck to a boot, or burred to the hair of a cow, or dropped from a crate.

So it is that there forests of Australian blue gum eucalyptus growing across the hills. They rattle their sickle shaped leaves in the wind and give off a clean scent, but cover the soil with a thick layer of leaves that nothing but poison oak will grow through. The wood itself does not catch fire easily, but the bark and leaves do, meaning the forests burn with a fury that sterilizes hillsides, leaving behind a black that the eucalyptus is first to come back to.

At their fringe, pampas grass from Argentina grows in tangles too thick for the native rodents to hide in. Himalayan Blackberry, larger and more ferocious than its native cousin, wraps the eastern sides of the hills. At the ocean, south african ice plant smothers the dunes, choking native plants, a precaution thought necessary by the highway department to keep sand off the roads. While higher up, an ivy of the same country competes with ones from England and Japan to climb the ladders of the Douglass Firs till even those mighty trees have the light blocked, or break under the weight of the vines, or rot beneath the tangle. Then there are the usual European weeds, - cleavers, oatstraw, timothy, milk thistle - and that newcomer lately of the Black Sea, giant hogweed. To survive here, in this roiling jungle of weedy exotics, one must be savage oneself, as the poison oak, stinging nettle, and poison hemlock, or else innocuous enough to escape notice, as a woodland orchis. Only rarely will one be able to stop at an unexpected clump of kniphofia - red hot poker plant - a lily relative from South Africa, and appreciate how it has settled here, in one tidy clump amidst the native brush, and unlike so many other newcomers, behaved itself.

The people, the land. Everything seems to be from someplace else in this strange state. We are players to a land in flux. This is a world that is moving towards hybridity. The pot is being stirred, whether it desires or not, the dregs mix with the broth. I will not say it is a bad thing, but it is certainly not an easy thing, either to do or accept. And whatever the outcome, the emerging world is one to which the inhabitants of these hills will have to learn again to be native to.

Like ourselves, the plants clamor for the sunshine and sea air of California. Unlike ourselves, they present no lawsuit to stake their claim - or refute another's - and so might be more easily restrained. A shovel would do nice work. But since they are so abundant, and persistent, and so obvious as to be overlooked - so weedy - they are likely to remain quiet conquerors of a once perfect paradise. Which is something like ourselves after all.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Fog on the Bay

I have seen New York, and Paris, and Rome, and to my mind not a one of them can compare to San Francisco. Each of those others offered big culture, big history, or just big, and that's probably why I like the last so much. San Francisco is not a very large city, geography put some good limits to it - a thumb of land with a mountain to the south. Three sides moat, one side wall. There's not much place else to go, except across the bay. Had the land been more level it probably would have gotten much grander ideas, but then it would be Boston, or Philadelphia. Instead, being set on the hills leading up to Montara Mountain, the city sits as though the architects had sketched out the plan for a flatter town, then crumpled up the drawings, smoothed them out, and then crushed them up again. So now there is a city where crossing a street feels like mid-grade mountaineering.

Often I felt I was walking thru a garden where people lived. Each dip and rise of the land seemed to hold some strange spot of green that had perhaps at first been inaccessible, then overlooked, and finally preserved in palm and cypress. Twenty percent of the area of San Francisco is taken up by Golden Gate Park alone. That one patch is greater in size than Central Park, though addresses along it are not considered as desirable. But I prefer it. Manhattan likes to stay manicured, but Golden Gate is nature barely held. There are plenty of trees that have been left unpruned, creeping vines have slunk in, dark corners everywhere to explore, or avoid as you like. If Baron Von Hausman had gentrified Paris by consulting Maurice Sendak, this might have been the result. Wild things could live here, and do.

Mostly, I like the fog. Maybe it's because every region must take pride in something. No other city I know is so proximal to nature, it's finger on the pulse of day. A grey mist rises from the Pacific and drifts landward in a magic curtain, clothing the tops of broken trees, sinking the desperate and quiet corners both in a hush, softening smell. Things become calm not so much because of the dampening of sound, but because there is suddenly less imperative to make noise. Conversations become hushed, drivers less angry, perhaps not because they have suddenly become content or soothed, but only realized that whatever they had been worked up about was not really anything much. Not every day does this happen, but many. And it seems to me one of those daily acts of magic - like sunrise, like wind - that happens everywhere, is seen by everyone, and which consequently, nobody pays much attention to. Then something happens to shift the pull of air, and the whole cloud sluices out thru the Golden Gate and back out to sea, and there the city is once more, where from above there had been none. As secret as Avalon.

I've had the good fortune to always be able to travel either with friends or towards them. On my last day in the city, I called up a friend who had been living in Oakland for better than the past two years, and who, to my shame, I never visited. So, naturally I invited her to join my walk. She agreed, for a part of it. We met at the southern entrance to the Golden Gate Bridge. We spent the first quarter figuring out how we had lived so near each other yet always managed to miss meeting up, the middle half talking about the present goings on in our lives, and the last bit talking about where we were going. North is my easiest answer, but by no means most accurate. As for herself, she imagines she'll just be going back across the bay to Oakland. And I'll be looking forward to seeing her on my return. The 1.7 miles of the bridge was neither time, nor length enough to satisfy a friendship put on hold for more than 2 years. We stopped halfway across so I could look out at the bay, and the incredible fortune that allowed so many things to come together, land, sea, earth, sky, sunset, my friend, the bridge, and I. I don't find city views particularly scenic and don't see how a high rise apartment is really a deal since all windows still present grey and concrete, but this is a much better arrangement. Looking east over such a stretch of land, I can imagine why some folks might consider coming here to end their lives, but I wonder how, in looking at so nice a bay, they could not but change their mind. The fog was coming in and the sun going down, so my friend went the last bit with me, and walked me out of the city.

I went north, as has been the habit, up into the Headlands of Marin. From there if the fog is behaved, the whole bay becomes a pool of cloud, and it would seem that a rowboat would be craft enough to go across the surface, provided it were first inspected for leaks. On the slopes of Tamalpais I looked back at San Francisco, but it was gone now, sunk down in vapor, waiting to come out again some other time.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Interview - San Francisco

If you scroll one third of the way thru this, you can hear an interview with me, held at Pirate Cat Radio on June 4th in San Francisco.

For some of it, I'm reading my first blog entry, but she did ask some good questions.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


My belongings were set – boxed for storage or stowed in my pack – my house cleaned to a state unrivalled since I had first entered, and my last paycheck deposited. But I did not leave immediately. It did not matter that I had reckoned everything as it should be, I did not feel it time to go. Rather, I had that latent feeling that must be held by all migratory creatures, when they reason not by calendar though by intuition. A few stray from the flock, pressing out the boundaries in short, tethered flights, till all at once some desire seizes all by the wings and it’s goodbye for other climes, other trees, other seasons. I would leave when the time was right and not press its arrival.

On a hillside, we spent a final night, I and my friends, camped out together. A few left that day, another at dawn. Late in the morning, the remainder of us, eight, went to breakfast and spoke words that would have no bearing on whatever followed. All talk was of inconsequential subjects that when had with strangers make up small talk and when shared with friends make conversation, the words pressed with significance when passed between. It was a good meal with good friends. Time was getting closer. The hour was there when I could feel my heart, like a flock of swallows, rise and swell within me, then spread out everywhere. This was the ending that I had wanted. I shouldered my pack and walked away.

Why the stubbornness? Why the solitude? Better asking why the clarity that comes from such doings? Why the movement of the swallows? Why does the agave plant spend a quarter century in thrift so as in a single season it might have a sparse blossom? Why the hard-pated determination of salmon to breed and die? Why consider this an ending that it is not? All my reasons previous, and all those to come, could be reduced to a single urge: a bare desire for commune. Like the Baptist. Like Whitman. Like Francis. I would walk to see, and let what I saw enter into me, to become me. To live my life by circle that would ripple outwards pressing back the walls of my world till they became my world, and to be outside was to be inside.

When I first came to California, and now in leaving where I had been, I had felt a shame. Was I not limiting my allegiance by giving up on a place? I had been around some years, though had spent many more growing up in New York, where my family still was. There they had lived – from Brooklyn and Long Island – for centuries it seemed. The Wood family name, it was rumored, went back to Dutch times, being among the first English to see the worth of this continent. Certainly by the proud portraits my parents displayed, there was a history at least to the early years of popular photography. A portion of the family, in the days before and during the Civil War, moved to Pennsylvania, but we remained by name and blood in the Northeast. Though I am not one to judge a person’s character by a name inherited, when families were first given names it was for suitable reasons. The ironworkers were named Smith. The wagon makers cartwrights. For my own family, the Woods were an unremarkable, sedentary forest people. And though my mother’s side claims some Italians, their family name of Silvestri – forest – is ironically suitable. As the names suggest, rooted.

But then, mine is a family richer in rumor than story. I had little proof of any family history before 1850. Even so, that was only the family name. That first Wood may have arrived early on, but still had given up on calling another place home. He had cut his roots to some old world turf and learned to love another land. Nor is this a tree of Wood alone. Grafted to the branch were Danes, Germans, French before it came to me. More than that, my Scottish-Italian mother had a family that was completely of the 20th century. Does this make me a third generation American? Or a fifth? Or an eighth? Or a twelfth? Or not at all? My past is populated with the restless vagabonds of Europe. And before, they too claimed lineages that had come, unrolled, to them by steps from some eastern relations. Out of Africa, out of Eden, they came walking. It is easy to see a tribe of footloose folks drop their packs and their children then set out again, till their heirs became footsore and dropped their own children on some new earth. By such was the world peopled, and whether it is from the earthly paradise, or Ethiopia, we come descended, the story is no less great, or less beautiful. This then, would be a retracing of family history, giving me the chance to relearn – or to make it up – as I go.

So, my roots were cut. For my own part, in the past 8 years I had moved 6 times, received a college degree, learned a foreign language, picked up 9 musical instruments, seen more of the planet than any relative I had ever met, made family where I could not find it. Had I stayed in the town where I had been a boy, I would work at the grocer’s, or a farm, or a truckstop, and my hours of freedom would be tedious recovery from work. I would trade my daylight hours for the right to a place to sleep. So much for roots.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


I do my best thinking afoot, and I suppose that’s how this all came about. The idea was simple; left foot, right foot, repeat, all the way across the continent. Starting out from south of San Francisco, going north along the Pacific till it seemed time to turn east, against the mountains and what lay behind, and so again down to a different ocean. A walk from sea to sea.

I had thought by this point to have figured it all out. Now in my twenty-seventh year, it seemed I should be well settled to some job, some place, some calling, if you will - to be advancing towards my life's goal. I still haven't got any of that sorted, and expect, as times goes, to be even less sure of it. I've had my turns of feeling deficient, but I've come past it to this new endeavor.

Between San Francisco and the Atlantic lay an undiscovered country, the fabled land of fruited plains and purple mountains. I'd passed thru it, and over it, a number of times since coming to California from New York, but could not say I knew it. Places, if not blank spots on the map, were certainly little filled in my mind. I had no idea about a place with a name like Oregon. And Montana brought little up, but by the sound of it a place as powerful in beauty and silence as the land to which I had come. Minnesota meant the sound of water to me. I knew a few folks from Michigan, and so had vague associations. Idaho meant nothing. Thousands of miles - and years - of history and Lewis and Clark might as well have never left. It's an intimidating blankscape.

I spent hours looking over maps in astonishment at the places one could go, if there were time and inclination. Shasta. Olympic. Tetons. Glacier. Acadia. At first, I had wanted at first to see every state, and all places, but that idea had dimmed after California. I had arrived there at a point where I needed the community I found but didn't know it yet. The people I met accepted my character and behavior with enthusiasm and celebration. In the three years spent among them, they became the friends I could not replace. We lived, slept, ate, laughed, and loved together. I was perfectly happy. Naturally, I had to leave.

I could remain, contentedly, in California, and leave that whole middle section untouched and untroubled - a lost continent - or get out before I got too comfortable, before I gave up on wondering what else there was. That's how this idea came about, and the time come round for it. Signs seemed to be everywhere telling me to get up, go, move, do. The friends I love were moving on to other places, I decided to leave my own job for reasons that remain personal, I did not get accepted to any positions I had applied for, I still slept alone, I had no car. The time I had half-wished upon myself was now there in spades. But still, diminishing.

I fancy I am young yet, and plenty able, but can guess with fair accuracy it won't always be so. Middle age is now less than a decade away and the comforts I would care to enjoy then - a family, land, the satisfaction of youth well spent - I have made little progress towards. This may well be an opportunity not to come a second time.

Too, I was looking to experience that richness of spirit that comes with good living, with breathing good air and sleeping in the grass. I wanted to find again a joy I have touched, and always in nature. I have felt absolute quivering raptures up in a tree, beneath a manzanita bush, and under a lake, among other places. I have never felt rejected by nature. Always, nature has been a place of comfort, the understanding teacher, the loving relative, who takes me in when I can't make rent. I have felt the sweep of an overflowing gut rush that can only be love when in that great presence, amazed by all the ways a world can whisper its adoration.

This, also, hangs on time. I wanted to see it before its gone. I'd read from the great writers, and heard from those of elder generations, that the green space was greater, and there was more of it to be young in, when they were off having their own adventures. It was a continent not quite conquered, and perhaps still isn't, but there were more of those things wild then. The bison, the wolves, the bear, had gone not long after the people who put up their last defense. Then the forests were cleared, the towns came up, and roads, roads for everyone everywhere it seems, as a restless people got a notion to get up and move and go somewhere, anywhere for any reason. Even to see just how green that grass could get.

I was restless myself, but I wanted to go to places besides where the roads would lead me and I didn't want to sit around while the last of the good places were swept away. I didn't want to tell my grandchildren that there had been giants, but I never saw them, and nor would they. I didn't want to miss out. I wanted to see that other side.

For years I have wondered at the amazement of the Spanish explorers and the 19th century naturalists for the plenitude of life and majesty that splits and spreads itself over every acre of this land. What a sight it must have been to see the Appalachians go white with chestnut bloom, and big bluestem brush the bellies of the buffalo, and the Central Valley blossom as a lake of flowers. That's all gone now. Neither I nor anyone can see what they saw, but I can see as they saw.

Years have made me no smarter. I'm ever surprised by marks of time I find in the mirror, yet still feel as bewildered as an adolescent, just getting a hang on things. I am a 26 year old boy with no clue on how to be a man. I'm not sure where the division was supposed to lie, and I have as yet found no trace of it.

This then, would be that mark that splits my time in two. Years afterward would be reckoned as 'that had been before' and 'that had been after.' It would be the meridian beyond which I could claim to have done something worthwhile, that I could boast without shame, yet never need to. To have done it, or to have heard said "that one crossed the continent on foot" is enough. The doing of it is easy. You walk, you get tired, you rest, you get up and walk again. And so on to the sea. It's just a long way.