On March 3, 2018, I participated in the storytelling event, Back Fence PDX, where I told this story from memory with no notes! This is what I wrote up for practice, the delivered piece was a bit different. It takes place in early spring of 2013. All of the photos are from that day. Ugh, thinking about Angels Rest hurts my heart so bad.
This day was a big deal for me and not even the hangover I woke up with was going to mess that up. I was going to hike my first “hard” trail. Now, at the time, every trail was a “hard” trail for me, but Angels Rest was the kind of trail that “real hikers” did and it felt like some kind of rite of passage. Like, if I could do this, I could start to actually call myself a hiker without feeling insecure and weird and I guess I’d become the kind of person that thought that was important.
Now, I know a lot of you here have hiked Angels Rest and probably think it’s no big deal. Talking about my later-in-life discovery of hiking and the outdoors around a bunch of people living in the freaking PNW is kind of vulnerable for me. I didn’t grow up outdoorsy. My family didn’t camp, or hike or talk about the outdoors, so I had no reason to think I was missing out on anything and what I saw of outdoorsy things on TV and movies never showed people like me, or like my family and our friends. Why would it feel like something I’d want to do? And being fat and queer made me feel on the outs in most situations anyway. A little while back, I wasn’t doing so hot. My already bad mental health was not benefiting from daily alcohol and drug use [shrug]. Constant hangovers and not having the energy to do anything more than sleep or party absolutely destroyed my imagination. I felt lost, I didn’t know what I wanted or how to make myself happy. And I was really scared that was just how my life was going to be.
And then… someone took me on a hike and my entire life changed!
Not really, but it felt like something new. I needed new.
[back to the hike] My partner Brie and I took our hangovers to the “friendliest store in town” for breakfast because things needed to be as uncomplicated as possible or I’d plant myself on the couch for the rest of the day watching internet tv. We promptly ran into a friend and I say to her with this very casual confidence that I don’t actually possess in my entire being that we’re on our way to Angels Rest. She says she was just there, kind of grimacing as she says it. She shakes her head and adds, “Ugh, those switchbacks, you know?” And I gestured in agreeance, but, no, I didn’t know. I didn’t know what a switchback was. Technically, I’d been on them many times. I just didn’t know they had a name, which is a great example of where I was at as a hiker.
We get our expensive snacks and get on the road. After only about twenty minutes of driving, we pulled up to the trailhead, taking the last available spot in the lot. I wished the drive was longer, I wished fewer people were there. I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready to fail and the depth of that feeling was so real for me it’s just sad. We got out of the car and it’s sprinkling a little and I still didn’t know how to dress myself for any kind of weather and it barely matters because functional, cute active wear in my size that I can actually afford barely exists. I was wearing cotton spandex leggings, a cotton tank top and a black cotton hoodie. Cotton. I didn’t yet know that it’s the worst thing you can wear because it doesn’t dry and it sticks to your body.
We consult our hiking book and step onto the trail. All I can see is what can only be described as a green tree tunnel going right up into the sky. The climb was already so real. Soon, we reach that first talus slope and look out over the gorge and that precious wave of knowing comes over me. For all of my anxiety and negative self-talk, there isn’t another place I want to be. Brie is up ahead a little, as she always is. Just a polite distance that tells me, “I won’t leave you behind, I know right where you are.” Sometimes I feel jealous as her body seems to move so naturally in these challenging situations and I know she’s not having the weird conversations with herself that I’m having. She moves with a sense of her right to be there. I move like I am asking for permission. She pivots toward me and looks up, points at this rocky outcropping SO HIGH UP AND SO FAR AWAY and says, “I think that’s where we’re hiking to,” I don’t even know how to wrap my brain around the possibility of my body taking me up there and for the first time that day, I tell her how badly I’m feeling about everything. How scared I am of not being able to do it. She reminds me that we are here because I want to be and she’s right and I do. We continue to climb and it starts to pour, but I’m so hot and soggy in this stupid hoodie that I take it off and hike in a tank top amongst a sea of brightly colored puffy jackets. Why does everyone in Portland dress like it’s below freezing? I don’t understand the puffy jacket thing! I say to Brie that I’ll never wear something so hideous. (I totally wear puffy jackets now, I get it—I fucking get it—but then I’ll see some dude in a puffy jacket wearing flip-flops or shorts and I just… it doesn’t make me feel so great about joining the team.)
The second reward of the trail came early. I hear the crashing sound of water and soon we’re walking over the top of a waterfall, but I can’t actually see the falls. There’s a sketchy little path people obviously use to climb down to it and I decide I need a closer look. Brie was like, hell no, but I didn’t think it looked that bad. It was like maybe, a six-foot drop, and what looked like steps eroded into the wall. So I climb down and—-it’s AMAZING. A beautiful lacy cascade with these crazy bright pinkish-red roots growing wildly alongside as if they’re flowing with the water. I’d never seen anything like it. It’s the kind of beauty that changes you. After a minute or so, I turn to climb out and realize I’ve made a huge mistake. The “steps” I’d used to climb down the wall are so tall I can hardly pull my body up each one and with the pouring rain and slick mud, I’m kind of stuck. I start to panic. And cry. Brie’s trying to help, but I feel so bad about doing something so stupid it’s like my arms and legs won’t work. So I just let myself cry some more. I took some deep breaths and tried again. I was not going out like that. I was not about to rescued off the side of a tiny mountain in the Columbia River Gorge on a busy weekend. I got myself maybe halfway up the mud wall and sort of heaved myself up and over back onto the trail in a sort of rolling motion. Just a fat person rolling around in mud! Nothing to see here! I was completely covered in mud and humiliated and shaken, but hey, I was back! Brie made it clear that I wouldn’t be climbing up or down anything again or we’d be turning around. I thought that was reasonable.
You’d think I’d grab onto the opportunity to turn back, but no. There was no way I’d turn back. I have this compulsive need to rise to the occasion even when every fiber of my being is screaming otherwise. I don’t accept failure because it absolutely destroys me. We continue on. I was the fat girl covered in mud on a busy trail, wearing a tank top as it poured, but I kept going. The trail never stopped climbing and I put 2+2 together and figured out what a switchback was. I also learned what a false summit was and Angels Rest has… a few of them. At one of these false summits, we leaned against a big rock as we took one of no less than a few dozen breaks. I’d hiked a lot in the gorge at this point, but it didn’t matter, I’d never get used to these views. Everyone says, “it’s like a postcard,” but Brie and I like to say that it’s “so insta.”
I fell in mud two more times and looked completely thrashed. Brie gave me her hat to wear after someone asked me if I was ok just because of the way I looked. We walked and we paused on repeat. I said the words “why am I doing this?” so many times. I met every false summit with foolish certainty and then shocked disbelief when we still had more trail ahead of us—-BUT— we finally made it. I felt that ache in my chest, that profound sense of connection that happens when I’m in places I can only get to by my body, this body, taking me there.
I looked out over the Columbia River. We don’t admonish rivers for being too wide, too curvy, too wild. I felt myself let go of my stories about myself from that day. I felt myself flow.
I’ve been hiking now for about six years. Nature reminds me that everything is a process. One step at a time, forward movement, the journey, it’s all metaphor. Daily life is so loud and busy and complicated and I can’t stand the noise sometimes. The machine-like happenings in my body and mind after a few miles on trail is my meditation, my therapy. Having nothing but the pack on my back with its carefully selected contents to sustain me, empowers me! People sometimes ask me what scares me most in the outdoors. In my daily life, I receive messages constantly that I have the wrong body, that I don’t know how to be a real woman, that my queerness makes me unwelcome. I feel safer and a stronger sense of belonging in the outdoors than I do anywhere else. Sometimes, I’ll be hiking and think to myself that it is such a bizarre miracle that my body does this, that my legs propel me for actual miles. Over mountains if I want them to! Criticizing my body contradicts what hiking has shown me about myself. Angel’s Rest is one of the trails I’ve done most. It became the place I went to when I’d lose my way and need to remember my power. It eventually became an “easy” one for me, not that it matters because every trail serves a purpose. I’ve done trails more than three times longer, with more than twice as much elevation gain, but few do I hold as close. Right now, it’s closed indefinitely due to the eagle creek fires of last summer. I miss it so much.