I wrote this article for the WaPo Lily two years ago. If you’re curious to know more about me, it’s a great place to start. 🙏🏻💕
*Eagle Creek is a closed trail. We are working there as volunteers with the Forest Service, with their express permission. Please don’t go into the trails before we have them open again, it’s really dangerous.*
Eagle Creek Trail in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic area was ground zero for the September 2017 fire that burned nearly 50,000 acres, primarily in Oregon. It’s been closed for almost two years as the Pacific Crest Trail Association volunteers and the U.S. Forest Service have been working to clear logs, rockslides, and fix other damage to the trail.
Eagle Creek trail was originally blasted out of andesite lava cliffs in many sections back in 1915. They even used explosives to create a walking tunnel through rock behind a spectacular waterfall, now known as Tunnel Falls. The trail follows the creek from above (Wahtum Lake end) and from below (close to the Columbia River). It features sheer cliffs, dizzying drops, so many waterfalls, and eagles flying high over the creek. It’s a true jewel of the Gorge.
I’m a freshly minted Trail Work Party Crew Leader with the PCTA, so when the chance came up to co-lead a group down into EC from the South, I volunteered right away. We’ve been working on the lower trail for much of 2019, and it’s actually quite passable (and still closed) up to the missing bridge at High Creek, about four miles from the trailhead.
I’ve worked a lot in the burn area the last two years, so I was pretty excited to see how the upper trail fared over the last year since we worked on it in 2018. It’s a long haul into Wahtum Lake, a beautiful blue body of water surrounded by old growth trees and the convergence point for several trails. The PCT passes through here, and the Herman Creek trail ends here, 4,000 feet higher and 11 miles from the river where it starts.
To support a multi-day crew going in the next day, our mission was to hike in six or seven miles, with a full complement of fairly heavy trail tools and create a tool cache for the crew coming next.
Early morning at Wahtum Lake and I’m unloading tools, helping make sure everyone signs the paperwork. We work as Forest Service Volunteers, so we follow their regulations and procedures. We cover the Job Hazard Analysis (JHA), determine our first aid person, check our radios, and do a host of other preparation steps. There’s three ‘Susans’ on this crew, how fun!
We have introductions, I see many familiar faces and a few new ones, and we’re loaded up and headed down to the Pacific Crest Trail. Here the PCT wanders through enormous old growth Doug Firs, and has a side option for taking the currently closed Eagle Creek Trail. We duck under the ribbon, and our group of Sherpas for the day heads out.
The entirety of the Eagle Creek Trail has been closed since September 2017, now almost two years. The South end of the trail saw a lot fewer boots when it was open than the Gorge end, back nearer to the super popular Punchbowl Falls. This end is always a bit wilder, less tamed than the trail before Tunnel Falls.
Now, it’s entirely overgrown in parts, vague and hard to follow. The fireweed is over my head, the Indian Mountain turnoff invisible. We’re quickly back into the burn area again, blackened trunks surrounded by swaths of green as nature renews.
I take the heavy steel rock bar in trade from another volunteer as we work our way down. It’s not enough to begin to move a refrigerator sized boulder laying across the trail. It’s the kind of rock that makes me wish we used explosives, we will have to dig it out and rig it with cables – but not today.
From this part of the Eagle Creek Trail, you have a great view looking up at the ridge where the PCT leaves Wahtum Lake, passing Chinidere Mountain, as it meets the Benson Plateau. We took over one hundred logs off that section last year, in just two days, but that’s literally another story. Tanner Butte looks still severely damaged, worst burn I’ve seen. I see the ridge we climbed two years ago, where I fell and nearly died. These hills hold a lot of personal history for me.
Looking up to Benson Plateau from Upper Eagle Creek Trail
Our mission half completed, we leave an assortment of tools well off the trail, wrapped in Tyvek. It’s just the long hike back up the hill, and I lead us off. The afternoon sun is blazing hot, beating down on us in long pants, work boots, and long sleeves. Wearing your hardhat all the time is mandatory working in the burn area, outside camp. At least I’m not carrying the long rock bar now, easily fifteen pounds of steel.
Thankfully, once we clear the severe burn, it’s cool with ample streams for water. We use a Steri-pen and drink straight from the streams after treating the water. Ten foot tall Devil’s Club threatens to choke out the trail, that’s a future project.
Taking advantage of what little shade we had climbing out
Finally, we’re back at Wahtum Lake, and ready for the long drive home. Bob was kind enough to pack a cooler filled with ice cold non-alcoholic beverages, and a Lacroix is gone thirty seconds after I open it. The next month, we have two work parties, and the third in August. We’re really working this section hard now, while we wait for bridgework. My first crew is done, a pretty easy one, and we didn’t leave anyone behind. 😉
***Eagle Creek Trail is closed and has many hazards***
Darkness in the Light
There’s a stain upon my beautiful heart, dark and filled with pain
Ashes in my verdant landscape shock my mind, where was the fire?
I bury it with light and love, with kindness and compassion
Pouring goodness on fear, nourishing and wholesome
Willing my heart to be open, welcoming of all gentle beings!
Mind demanding answers, why is this here? What have we done?
Swirling echoes of self-harm, dark days gone, they bridge across time
Transgressions and violations long past feed this darkness
My soul tastes fear, and watches it grow with alarm
Like spilled ink on a new dress, it won’t ever wash out
There’s a stain upon my beautiful heart.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1891) ❤
The first tears come in the morning, small and quiet
My heart, she sings a maudlin song, echoes of trauma past
A song of violation, violence, loathing, and loss
Her great sorrow, demanding to be heard and seen
Glimpses across time and space, moments of love and sorrow, served up by the mind
My heart, she sings her song, powerful notes slicing my psyche to ribbons
The tears flow in time to her song, I sit and watch, and wonder in pain
Will her song ever end? When will it change?
I wipe my eyes, as tears fall.
The New York Times posted an interactive page for Pride Month, asking readers to self-identify with ten words or less. Many of the answers are quite clever, and the article does ask “What labels do you choose for yourself?” – for example:
I read several of the replies, most include some statement about being a member of the LGBTQ community (as I am), and some sort of interest-based tagline (‘cinephile’, ‘fitness-motivated’).
When I think about Pride Month and Identity, I do feel pride in my community. I’m however neither proud nor not-proud of my sexuality, my gender identity, etc. What I’m truly proud of, if anything, is the spiritual growth that has come from living authentically. I’m proud that I found the courage, that I didn’t allow others to define me. Everything else is window-dressing for the main event, living as the person you are, not the one society expects you to be.
I went back to the form and filled out my ten words or less, and I found just the right words to answer the question, ‘who am I?’.
Luna agrees. 😀 ❤
Kelley and I were in Reno, Nevada for the Memorial Day weekend to help move her daughter Danielle up to the great Pacific Northwest. After a quick plane trip down from PDX, Danielle had scheduled a float for me at Healing One, a beautiful intentional center for healing in Reno.
I’d not used flotation tanks (a.k.a. sensory deprivation tanks) previously. As someone who meditates regularly, I was super intrigued with the idea, and a bit apprehensive about having the experience somewhere new, where I felt less well-grounded than I would at home. Each tank has about a foot of water, is heated to body temperature, and has about a thousand pounds of Epsom salts in the water. You control the lighting, each tank is in a private suite behind a locked door, so no need for clothing, either. I love my Epsom salt baths at home, it helps me so much with soreness and recovery from injuries, so I was pretty stoked to try it out.
Chaz, the Chief Energetic Officer of Healing One, showed me a video that pretty much addressed all questions, explained how it works, showering requirements, etc. He’s such a bright light, I really enjoyed meeting him. The center itself has a post-float chill room, with amenities like teas and possibly the largest bean bag chair I’ve ever seen.Off I went to my suite, undressed and showered, and opened a heavy door into the tank. The water felt neither cold nor warm as I stepped in. For my sixty-minute session, music played the first ten minutes, then silence again until a few minutes before my time was up.Floating has so many claimed benefits that I really don’t want to re-hash them here, as anyone considering going has probably already read a bit about theta waves, meditation benefits, elevated dopamine and endorphins. Chaz’s website has a great shortlist here. Instead, I’d encourage anyone to just experience the experience, leaving expectations at the door, just being open to what happens.
In the first ten minutes or so, it was all about my body. I’m floating. I’m spinning…I think. It’s utterly dark and I cannot hear anything from the outside world. I touched the sides a few times, usually as I changed positions to find the most relaxing place to put my arms. I finally settled on crossed arms over my chest, like a mummy. I tried opening and closing my eyes (truly, no difference other than feeling air on your eye). I took slow, deep belly breaths, just like my yoga practice. I’m relaxed, calm, and so very quiet. I just let my mind run, wherever it wanted to go.
It’s hard to tell time. It feels more like I’m floating in space, not water. Then…I’m falling, back into the universe. I recognize this feeling, falling back into blackness. I’ve had it before, in deep meditation, also during sound therapy, it’s a distinct feeling that I’m no longer where I was just a moment prior. My body is, but I’m not. There’s a feeling of descent and landing, feet-first.
I open my eyes and look down at my feet. I’m standing on snow, in the midday sun. I’m wearing old, well-worn leather boots, grey wool knickers, red and grey patterned wool socks. I move my hand and see that I’m wearing a red flannel shirt. I have a pack, and I move to set it down. It’s old, well-worn canvas. I’m carrying skis, made of wood, with leather straps for bindings. My mind accepts all of this as normal, until I look up.
It’s a bluebird day, and there, large as life, sits the Matterhorn, in all its splendor. I’m looking up at the North and East faces, against a deep blue sky. I close my eyes, and open them again. It’s still there, faint wisps of clouds around its summit. I turn around slowly, and yes, the village is behind me. I’m in Zermatt, Switzerland. I’m high up on a slope, a long line of footsteps in the snow below me. I’m carrying a single pole, besides my skis. There’s a pair of heavy side-shielded sunglasses on my face, and I take them off, turning them around so I can see my reflection. It’s not my face I see. The hair is still blond, but curly. It’s not younger-me, or any other version of me by appearance. But, it’s me, in the way you just know that you’re you, inside.
I strain for a moment, trying to remember my name. It starts with an ‘H’…then it’s gone. Helgi? Heidi? I can’t remember. I look the pole in my hand, not a modern ski pole, but a well-worn, single wooden pole used for climbing and skiing…about a hundred years ago. No modern skier has used the single-pole steering technique in…forever.
I turn and look again at the peak behind me, it’s so intensely beautiful and I’ve apparently been climbing for some time to this upper snowfield, so I strap on the skis.’Do I know how to do this?’, I wonder. ‘Of course you do’, my inner voice tells me. I push off, the skis feel so heavy and ponderous, like they don’t want to turn. I reach back and dig the end of the pole in behind me, pushing hard on the outside ski, and it turns. I flip the pole around, and I’m turning the other way. I’m schussing down a high alpine snowfield, surrounded by the Alps of the Valais region. I don’t see any cable cars, which seems curious, as they’re a central feature of modern Zermatt.
Then, I’m not skiing, it’s all blackness again. I’m faintly aware of my body, floating in a tank, and there’s some urgency to ‘get back there’. I blink my eyes, still seeing blackness, but I hear soft strains of music, telling me my time is almost up. Did I sleep? No, I’m sure I didn’t. I don’t have that level of awareness in a dream state, and I rarely have any control over the direction of my dreams. This wasn’t a dream, and my mind is just blown.
How did I end up on a high mountain snowfield, using one hundred year old equipment? How did I know how to ski using a technique I’ve only heard of, never done. How the hell did I end up in Switzerland? The images are burned into my mind, I can peruse them in exquisite detail, in all their beauty. The beauty of those moments feels so intense, it brings tears to my eyes when I dwell upon it more than briefly.
I’ve learned in my spiritual journey not to fall to the temptation to try to figure everything out. This experience, however, feels so significant, though I cannot say why. For sure, I’ll float again. Maybe nothing will happen, maybe I’ll gain some insight. But that’s okay, I don’t need to know. I hold onto the memory of making beautiful big turns and flying down a faraway mountainside, and that’s enough for now. I don’t need to know, the experience in itself is complete.
I love you, woman with two dogs who lights up when she sees me, who stopped me last November to talk of her distress over the Cult of #45.
I love you, odd lumbersexual who looks at my chest, not my face (eyes are up here, dude).
I love you, rude cyclist who hit my arm carelessly because your skill does not match your perceptions.
I love you, homeless sweltering in the heat under the bridge, I wish I had magical answers to alleviate your suffering today, no one in society should be kicked to the curb.
I love you, cool senior couple holding hands, who look like they have been together forever.
I love you, grey-bearded naval veteran who blew past the weightlifter taking his ego for run, running with complete joy.
I love you trees, river, and buildings.
I love you bridges, monuments to our ability to work together toward common big goals despite our apparent differences.
I love you world, I love you all so deeply that I feel the infinite energy of Love surge up through me, filling me with peace, joy, and happiness.
I love you.
I walk a lot on the Portland waterfront at lunch, I see a lot of people. I was inspired to write this while experiencing the sober bliss of intense love, of connection, of shared struggle. I’m often inspired by the poetry of Walt Whitman. When I first read his Song of Myself, I immediately said ‘YES! THIS!’
Despite our obsession with tribalism, arrogance of self, and fear, we are all One. There are plenty of people in this world whose behavior I don’t approve of, but that isn’t love. People whose behavior is the worst, I see their suffering and fear.I can no more hate another than hate myself, because that’s effectively what I’d be doing.
Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. – Buddha
When we really see this, when we can get past our fear of the Other, when we can stop comparing and judging, or reducing others to feed our Ego, we can really see. I dream of a world of light and love, where we lift one another up, where our competition is to be the best person we can be, not to dominate or subjugate others. Love is our natural state, our fundamental vibe, often suppressed by suffering, our connection.
I love you. 💕
Today, I am the Warrior
I stand tall and strong, I will not falter
I will be brave enough for this day
I will allow empathy, compassion, and kindness to rule all my actions
I will thrive and love my self today
Chinidere Mountain, near Wahtum Lake, Oregon. Mt. Hood in the background
I often write short mantras with yoga themes, to help my focus, particularly when I’m suffering from anxiety. I wrote an article last year for the Washington Post Lily on how anxiety affects me, you can read it here. The above is another variation on this, one of my favorites. It focuses on strength, but strength applied with empathy and compassion, to others and self.
Bell Creek, Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Sadly, this trail is still closed due to the #Eaglecreekfire
Oh girl dancing down those dirty and dusty trails
Take it hip to hip, rocket through the wilderness
Around the world the trip begins with a kiss
Roam if you want to
Roam around the world
Roam if you want to
Without wings, without wheels
Roam if you want to
Roam around the world
Roam if you want to
Without anything but the love we feel
These trails are inexorably linked for me to the many trips I made last year as a volunteer with the Pacific Crest Trail Association, clearing these fire-damaged trails in the wake of the Eagle Creek Fire. I worked so many hours, over many months last Spring and into early Summer, hiking into the PCT or HCT with a hard hat, tools, and determination to do everything I could to repair the damage. I met the most marvelous people of formidable spirit, we accomplished things beyond what was considered possible.