“I look around and try to notice everything I possibly can, something I do when I need to get out of my head. Drenched neon mosses and licorice ferns growing off every alder trunk. The remaining leaves, a yellow deserving of new definition. The fog swirls thicker. Gratitude for green. All year, the seasons haven’t known whether to shit or get off the pot, but it is distinctly becoming winter, which isn’t so stark in Northwest Oregon, but actually kind of luscious, lively, magical. I’ve been going through my days like I’ve lost my magic and I hope to get some back today. I listen to the trees, the hollow roar of the Columbia River Gorge and the distant noises of highway fourteen. The sounds fill me up and I imagine them pushing out my pain.”
I’ve been sitting in the car with the windshield wipers thudding back and forth for nearly half an hour. Thud, swish, thud, swish. The rain pours in fat drops, then sheets, then sprinkles and repeats the cycle. Though this rarely keeps me from getting out, it naturally gives pause. You can’t not hike in the Pacific Northwest just because it’s raining, otherwise, you won’t hike. I go out rain or shine because I have to. It makes me better. The forces of the world and of my own mind have created a kind of inertia keeping me from getting out. I’ve also been sick the last few days. I sit and listen to radio pop music and scroll through Instagram before remembering that I do not Instagram and hike, so I put my phone in my pocket, finish my coffee, grab my poles and get my ass out of the car.
I walk up to the trailhead, greeted by the massive old growth doug fir guarding the trail. Green. Everything is green. The white trunks of alders and big leaf maples with their last remaining fiery leaves seem only to highlight this kind of unimaginable green. Rain drops glitter in the low hanging fog. I’m already lighter, relieved to be here, hoping the woods have much to tell me today. Just a few steps in, it’s easy to see there have been recent improvements. A new foot bridge and the path has been lined by rocks and old logs. I swear a switchback has been rerouted, but it’s been at least a year since I’ve been here so my eyes could be deceiving me. The tidiness is kind of unnerving. My mind just goes right to the negative.
The trail ascends immediately, which is partly why I chose it. I love to get the ass-kicking started right away and on this trail it’s especially good, after you haul your body up this little mountain there are so many prizes: tons of views, waterfalls, varying scenery, maybe some horses. I’ve done this one a lot and it seems foolish to do again when there are many other trails, but today I need something that feels like an old friend. A friend that can look me square in the face, tell me exactly what I need to hear and lovingly call me on my shit. I need some advice from the trees. I always feel like a trail gets easier the more I do it. I’m more surefooted, confident. When I do a trail for the first time, my steps are so careful and I’m distracted from looking around and taking everything in. I know this trail and it knows me.
The switchbacks I usually bolt right up are killing my lungs. I’ve been having trouble breathing, in general. Not just from being sick, but for months now. I catch myself holding my breath for long periods of time, the occasional strained old-man-grunt making me aware I’m doing so. I’ve done this my whole life, though I broke the habit for awhile in recent years. It feels like I’m watching a glass fall to the floor in slow motion. Nothing in particular is wrong, not health-wise aside from this cold, I mean. I’m just… ugh, I don’t even want to say it. I’m so tired of saying it. I’m depressed and stressed out. Who isn’t going through it right now? Losing ones marbles seems like a pretty reasonable response to the daily terrors we’re subjected to: election nightmare, Dakota Access Pipeline, Ghost Ship fire in Oakland resulting in so many queer deaths, police brutality finally getting its due in mainstream media (though it already feels like it’s fading from the headlines), recent suicides in my communities, serial shooters, Muslim profiling, Syria and on and on. I’m still wracked over the Pulse shooting in Orlando back in June. It’s one catastrophic thing after another and though I suppose it can be argued that life is literally one-thing-after-another when you’re paying attention and participating, everything just feels very extra right now. It could be the repetitious lens of social media, but for once, I don’t think that’s it. The shit storm is at a fever pitch.
I take a break. My lungs are wheezing and don’t want to fill all of the way. Why the fuck am I here when I’m still sick? It’s purely rhetorical. I need this so badly right now. I look around and try to notice everything I possibly can, something I do when I need to get out of my head. Drenched neon mosses and licorice ferns growing off every alder trunk. The remaining leaves, a yellow deserving of new definition. The fog swirls thicker. Gratitude for green. All year, the seasons haven’t known whether to shit or get off the pot, but it is distinctly becoming winter, which isn’t so stark in Northwest Oregon, but actually kind of luscious, lively, magical. I’ve been going through my days like I’ve lost my magic and I hope to get some back today. I listen to the trees, the hollow roar of the Columbia River Gorge and the distant noises of highway fourteen. The sounds fill me up and I imagine them pushing out my pain.
Recentered, I start walking again as best I can, but negativity clouds my clarity, my thoughts grow darker. I’m annoyed about my physical and mental health. I can’t believe how long this has gone on and how badly it’s strangled my creativity. I haven’t updated my blog for months and when I’m not feeling horrible about it because it’s something that actually brings me joy, I’m doing whatever I can to be checked out. I’m annoyed at how hard I am on myself, how terrified and triggered I am by failure and how embarrassingly simple these feelings are. Aside from the real events of the world bringing on understandably, expectably hard feelings, so many things bringing me down don’t even fucking matter. I can say, however, I haven’t drank alcohol in over a month. Just before the election, I decided I wanted to experience all of this bullshit as soberly as possible and not that I regret this choice, I thought it would help more than it has. I was counting on it. I’m just as foggy-headed, depressed and anxious. I still have so much negative compulsion toward numbing myself by other means (social media, food, etc), but not drinking is a great thing! I’ve just wanted it to reveal so much more to me than it has.
I keep pausing and not realizing it. A little bit to catch my breath, but mostly I’m distracted by my own thoughts. I hit the first bend toward the north where quilt-like farmlands come into view, but the creeping fog makes it difficult to see beyond the trees closest to me. It’s still pouring, but I’m warm and comforted by knowing I have everything I need on my body.
Grief is a tidal wave right now on the communities I belong to. There’s been an increase in people taking their own lives. I know what it’s like to want to die. Even as a kid, as early as age nine, I remember wishing I wasn’t alive. My dad’s eagerness to be rid of my sisters and I was only eclipsed by our eagerness to be rid of him. I thought things would get better once I left my parents house. I learned how to be an adult from failing constantly, epically. I was a high school drop out, college was never on the table. I made about $700 a month working full time at my bookstore job, this was back in 2000, and the rent in my disgusting flea and roach infested slum was nearly as much. Pretty cheap in San Diego. I didn’t know how to write a check, pay bills, get my oil changed, go to a doctor, etcetera. The PTSD of my childhood made me crazy, but I think living in constant poverty might have been just as bad. I spent most of my twenties fumbling and feeling scared and abandoned and wanting to kill myself. I never actually tried. I joke that it’s my lifelong struggle with followthrough, but I know this is the thread of difference between myself and others who actually do try. There was something somewhere inside of me that wouldn’t let me. I am so grateful to not just be alive, but to want to be here.
Rain pounds at my face, this “pause” has been several minutes. Seven-plus miles is starting to sound impossible, but I know I just have to get up over this tiny baby mountain, which is less than a mile more. As I continue to ascend, the alders give way to doug firs, their thick canopy keeping most of the rain off of me. I’ve made my way to to the south side of the mountain and am finally at Pioneer Point, the first in a chain of three viewpoints within a tenth of a mile of one another. The best spot is the third one, Fallen Tree Viewpoint. They’re all more or less the same view of the Gorge and it’s spectacular most days. Today, I can’t see past the cliff’s edge. Sometimes, it’s not about the view. Actually, it never is. That’s just a bonus and even then it’s not a sure thing in the Pacific Northwest. I need nature, I need exercise, I need to know what might be revealed to me with every footfall. I tell myself I’m going to wait until the third viewpoint to take yet another break, but I can’t. I’m winded and I can’t believe it because I never break this early and I’m on my third.
I snap some pictures of nothing and plod on. I’m at the summit, where the trail kind of zigzags back and forth before I reach the descent. I feel terrible, physically, and I loosely decide I might turn around at the Nancy Russell overlook. I’m descending and the trail is all mud, but my poles make it so I can just trudge right through without sliding out from under myself. There’s a confusing system of forest roads that apparently lead to an old trailhead, but I don’t know that for sure. I stay on the forwardmost seeming one. Though I’m still chasing out bad thoughts, a sense of pride about getting out despite the weather and the darkness of my mind comes over me. For a moment, I feel gloriously alive and held by the land and the trees. This sense of gratitude always lurking under the surface and around the corner of this long stretch of depression, has been carrying me, refusing to let me sink too low.
I know there are always things to be grateful for and so many real privileges I experience, but one of the hardest things about how depressed I’ve been is simply knowing that not too long ago, about a year and a half, I wasn’t. It was the only time in my life I wasn’t and it lasted for a long time, over a year. I had the best therapist I’ve ever had, my relationships were great and eventually I decided to follow through with starting my blog. I made huge life changes such as not using drugs, lowering my alcohol intake and downgrading, but not ditching, friendships that weren’t nurturing and supportive. I was happy! The guesswork that has painstakingly followed my every move in life lessened and lessened to nothing more than an occasional vapor. I was also hiking up to three times a week, which was almost as healing as therapy. The outdoors got me in touch with a spiritual side I didn’t know I had. I felt connected to everything, a part of it all. I had a place in nature. My body became so strong and agile, making me feel more capable and confident. I referred to going hiking or getting out into nature as going to church or taking my medicine. I felt like I finally had all of the tools I needed, so I quit therapy the summer of 2015. I was doing really well for awhile, six months or so. I could hardly tell the downshift was happening until I was in it and I’ve been sinking deeper since. I’ve had a lot of embarrassing, needless shame about this idea of not being able to do all of this on my own, that I’m not strong enough. This line of thinking has been paralyzing and made healing myself again more difficult than necessary. However, when I think about going back to therapy, I do a mental inventory that makes me realize again and again I actually have everything I need even when I don’t feel strong enough. It’s comforting and confusing. Sometimes, I feel stuck. I know that I’m not.
The road veers left alongside a farm. Often, there are horses grazing here and one of them will come over for pets, but it’s too rainy and they’re nowhere in sight. The branches and blackberry brambles usually crowding the walk have all been pruned far back. I always enjoyed navigating them, getting a little slashed and ducking under low hangers. I reach a paved road, which I cross and then follow signs for the continuation. Even the long abandoned farmland has been cleared. The soil tilled and prepared for its next life. So many trees have been cut down. I’ve always adored this trail, but this tidiness, this lack of wildness is such a buzzkill. No, my mood is the buzzkill. I’m edging the Nancy Russell overlook now, a beautiful stone circular structure overlooking the Columbia River Gorge. Just beyond is where things get so good, but I sit on the ground with my back against the stone wall trying to drink water and knowing that I want to turn around. Turning around would only shave off a little over two miles, how is that even worth it? But the thought of going a full five more is just too much. I feel like shit and I just want to go home, so I do.
As I come down the last few switchbacks before the trailhead, the rain and fog, as if on cue, begin to clear. So typical in the Pacific Northwest, it will pour ceaselessly and every viewpoint will be fogged out, but when you’re close to being done, the rain will magically stop and the sun will even try to shine like a cruel joke. It is always worth it. I have never wished I would’ve just stayed home, even on a day like today where my mood hung around me darker and more pervasive than the raining clouds.
Sometimes, it's not about the view at the top. Actually, it never is. That's just a bonus and even then it's not a sure thing, especially in the Pacific Northwest. Still, I go out anyway. Rain or shine. Nature is my church, my medicine. It makes me better. • Location: Cape Horn, Washington #capehorn • Tag #unlikelyhikers or #unlikelyhiker to be featured!
Hiking in the Pacific Northwest often means it will pour ceaselessly and every viewpoint will be fogged out and when I'm finally back to the car, the rain will magically stop and the sun will even try to shine like a cruel joke. It is always worth it. I have never once just wished I would've stayed home. #capehorn