There are some people who do not take photographs of their adventures because of the way it affects memory. Suddenly, the captured image becomes the sole and solitary focus of the stories we tell ourselves about our own pasts. Additionally, the mere act of taking a photograph can distance and withdraw the individual from the experience at hand. However, I am a writer. I know who I am through the telling and retelling of my own past, the shifting pattern of how I remember my own life. For that reason taking pictures of an event or occasion does not bother me. I know that I will re-evaluate the experience on my own terms, with my own story, rather than solely through the visual images I preserve. I may lose something by looking through a lens at times, but I gain something in momentary vividness and an attention to singular details of my surroundings.
My perception of hiking has been shaped by the woods and hills of my childhood. I can remember running, nearly cartwheeling down into steep-sided ravines, poking into shallow caves set along the edges of paths, and stretching fingertips into a variety of rivulets and waterfalls. While there were some steep climbs set throughout the hills, there was nothing like the hundreds and thousands of foot climbs I was to experience later in life. There are no mountains in Indiana, and the Sierra Nevadas were mere illusory backdrop to my time in California. Perhaps that is why the image of reaching some rarefied height retained its appeal. To ceaselessly climb upward and then turn around and ceaselessly climb downward, despite poetic views of the surrounding countryside, is not the experience I once thought it was. But going up and down around a mountain – what new discoveries could I make in just such a way? I set off to explore Mt. Hood, not through risking life and limb to reach the summit, but to be on a more friendly first-name basis with the mountain as a whole.
The first thing you have to understand about Mt. Hood is the sand. I don’t know if it’s a lack of rain, a lack of wind or an overabundance of it, the continual churn of erosion or the relatively easy breakdown of volcanic rock, but that entire mountain is covered in sand. Sand lines the rubble of the steepest ravines and washouts. Sand builds up to sustain alpine meadows of wildflowers and scrubby brush. Sand blows in your eyes and grits your teeth and softens and shifts beneath you as you sleep. It covers each face of the mountain and is only replaced by more loamy soil in certain pine groves that must have anchored eons of needle decay. It is not altogether a bad characteristic, but I did not come to the mountain expecting to walk on dunes.
There is remoteness and isolation, along with neighborliness and small world coincidences. Hours pass without other hikers coming along the trail, and yet cell phone reception never quite fades. There are bears; there are cougars – sometimes you see them instead of simple signs of their passing. People give you gifts – a banana, a favored shortcut, a cup of hot tea in the cool of dusk. You run into law school acquaintances and create new friends. I personally told the story of my Elliot crossing experience in colorful detail at least a dozen times. The wind shatters your personal silence while wrapping you in a cocoon of noise. You spend four days of reflection, and at the end know yourself perhaps not better than you did before, but in a more concrete, visceral way.
My first day, as all the days that followed, was extraordinary and wonderful and extremely challenging. The first slopes were easy – they were all downhill. The first river crossing was comparatively safe and secure, though I found my own route across the rocks that would support the reach of my legs and the unwieldy imbalance of my pack. The first uphill climb seemed to last forever and breath abandoned me. Food flavors gained in power and attraction. I became accustomed to the chemical taste of treated water. Sitting down was my new favorite activity. I walked until dark and then walked a bit further. Eventually, the safety of sleeping near the windy ridgetop I struggled not to fly from outweighed the safety of crossing ice fields in the dark. Of course, for others this balance was different – one hiker passed me as the sun was setting with several more miles in wind and ice to go before he was stopping for the night.
Breakfast on the second day was delayed until finding a relatively sheltered spot where the stove could be lit. I get hangry normally, and no breakfast after a long long day of hiking probably pushes me to the knife-edge of sanity. But once provided, breakfast became something more wonderful than otherwise possible. It became…heavenly. Then I was off to discover the first of two little stone huts, probably ranger shelters. The first one had weights attached, probably to keep the corrugated roof from blowing off. Someday, I will build myself such a shelter somewhere, rock by rock. I made it down into the dangerous Elliott washout quite easily, via a narrow track. However, the other side was just steep walls of rubble that could cascade back down to the bottom at any time, or give way in a rockslide on your head. My natural monkey skills were made for just such an occasion though, so I got up without much problems and without having to take my pack off. Also said monkey skills were called into question, so pride and stubbornness helped me scrabble upwards extra-fast. Of course, after all that there was a more dangerous river crossing just above a waterfall later that day. The only route across was via wobbly, spiny pine logs. I crawled. (monkeys like upright trees, not tress over rivers). Finally, to finish the day off, about a mile away from the intended campsite, it started pouring down cold rain and remained chilly the rest of the night. Fortunately there was enough mostly-dry wood around to allow for a campfire and added warmth.
Day three was the most unexceptional of the days. The day started off in alpine meadows full of flowers and ended in the deeper cool of tall pines. I passed a variety of named areas of the mountain, wound up and down and around for an extended period, and finally reached Ramona Falls for an early camp that night. Several slightly deadly washed out areas were crossed without slipups or falls. I figured my klutz was saving itself for the last day. I think this is the day I saw the green grasshopper with red legs, but I could be wrong – that could’ve been the last day. No photo, alas. Also, evidently Ramona falls is one of those places frequented by campers who may not be backpacking. At our particular site, this meant a larger group with a nice, roaring fire and s’mores to share. I learned a new game that I don’t know what it was called – ‘hat’ or ‘salad bowl’ or something else containerish. But it was nice to be around new people for awhile, and focus on my usual non-camping hobbies like ‘games’ and ‘eating’. This was also the day I ran into a former NALSA officer on the mountain, just out of the blue. How often does that happen?
Final day four, I met the nicest group of old people on a day hike. They offered me blister protection, but I figured by that point my raw wounds couldn’t really be helped. Ah well. Also, the hike was slightly extended by a trip up to Paradise Park, which is one of the key areas people visit on the mountain. It was lovely, covered in flowers, and high enough to be level with the clouds. The mountain at times pierced its way into view, and at other times was partially or wholly obscured. Someone saw a bear, but I, sadly, did not. I chose the return to the trail that was shortest, but it was also the steepest down and probably a little hard on the knees. There were also extended elevation changes, which is not fun when you’re already tired. And, of course, because mountains like me so much, right at the end of the trek it started to hail. But then the sky cleared, and though my legs were stiff for the next several days, they had gained something as well. I want to not lose that, as the semester begins. Something about movement and mild strain is lost to the muscle memory when it is my mind alone that is focused.