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.