Tree Secrets

Companion piece to IG photos @ t3killahbee.

Thinking about the human thirst for new adventures, for new anything, always…. I caught myself in a downward spiral last week wishing for new as I bemoaned continued work and finance challenges, disruptive neighbors and alleyway visitors, the uptick of violent crime in my neighborhood, the slow demise of my primary mode of transportation allowing escape from these troubles and from the crumbling city. Electrical issues with my car threatened to derail a much needed getaway after finally securing some legitimate V.O. work. And I was already feeling lukewarm with regard to revisiting the campground I’d been attending for many years, now overwhelmed by a patronage considerably shifting the atmosphere with an abundance of gear and volume. Yet, with a shoulder healing still from dislocation, I was not going to be carrying a pack this time. Unable to secure the limited privacy of my regular campsite, I felt the need to get further out in the wilderness, further away from the type of campers I expected to encounter from the city. However, this was not the time. And my expectations for the journey began to talk me out of the need to make it.

I felt frustrated that I could not invite friends very easily either without knowing if/when I might retrieve my vehicle. I did not want to pressure them with the timing or responsibility for the drive out, and some of my camping gear was actually still in the trunk of my car at the shop. And even though I wished for some time alone in the outdoors, I do have a few friends whom allow for both stimulating conversation and, more importantly for me in the forest, quiet. Moreover I thought a friend or two might provide a buffer against the neighbors I anticipated onsite from recent experience. As I considered whether or not even to bother with travel when the variables had tumbled out of my control, I got the call from my mechanic, rode my bike a few miles to retrieve my car, and then returned home in a slightly better frame of mind, ready to pack up the car. I made it out of town less than an hour later. Apparently I still wanted to get out.

After stopping in a small town briefly to locate firewood and a NW forest pass, I found only ice and a solemn admonition against campfires from a local businesswoman. Not balking at her explanation, I had noticed the news of early drought and increased fire risk. And after last year’s miserable experience through September with toxic air quality and nowhere to run from the multitude of forest fires and smoke in the Cascades and well beyond, I felt that I could sacrifice a camp fire if need be for the safety of the community. In truth, my experience with the all-permeating, suffocating smoke last fall has dampened my enjoyment of the crackling fire and woodsmoke somewhat. From the tone of the local business operators, I gathered that there was still some lack of communication and interagency cooperation over pandemic and fire suppression protocols. The Forest Service offices were still closed.

New Campsite

I made it to camp in the late afternoon, found my site and began to scout for places to locate a tent and hammock. I noticed a small stand of old growth providing shade against temperatures in the mid 90’s. My former favorite site had not included nearly so nice a stand of trees, though it offered a wonderful open stretch of river access. This site offered a much smaller window of river access, but far more private and well shaded. Moreover, there was a very smooth stretch of sand to test out a new bug mesh bivy sack I had bought in preparation for lighter backpack travel (only 12oz. weight) once my shoulder healed. As the light fell, I started a fire with an abundant supply of wood left the prior weekend by a party celebrating a 40th birthday, apparently by splitting a bunch of downed trees from the Winter/Spring winds. I guess they hadn’t got the news in town. Lucky for me.

The metal fire ring well contained anything less than a bonfire anyway, and the camp host had swept away everything but sand from a nearly 10 foot radius, so I felt comfortable enjoying the amenity despite conflicting governmental directives, a common theme of late. I was informed by a new camp host that fires were OK on Federal, but not County lands, so far. I was pleased to discover that he was not the same host who likely had a hand in the late night theft of my cooler a few years before, nor was he the extremely nosy host who had interrupted my visits with friends for the last 2 seasons with arbitrary assertions of host authority. Freed from host intrusion anxiety, I enjoyed the fire well into the evening, drinking and listening to music as the stars brightened. I began to think I might enjoy this new camp site.

Having opted for only a mesh tent shell because of the warm evening and the presence of so many stars, I arose early the next morning with the sunlight. I decided to get moving early before the heat rose and before people thronged to the trailheads nearby. I drove a few minutes up the road, rather fearful of the cars I expected to encounter at another spot now overwhelmed with exponential population growth. To my surprise and unparalleled joy, there was no one else at the trailhead at 7 am. Ecstatic, I could not decide whether to rush up the trail to avoid any human confrontation potentially compromising this joy or to take my time to enjoy a moment of peace more immediately in a place that would not again see quiet the rest of the day.

I felt that I had been gifted a special experience for my effort. With the shift in attitude generated by this feeling, I noticed more clearly the light peering through the trees as it climbed the ridge, the different blue-green hues of rushing water between the exposed cedar roots, the rainbow palate of lichen painting the walls of the canyon and stones lining the trail. When I arrived at the Falls still in disbelief at my good fortune, my solitude was confirmed, and I sat quietly in the sun on the hillside absorbing every bit of sight, sound, and good feeling that I could. Humbled by the cathedral I was able to envision again without the conveyer belt of chatty Kathy’s up and down the trail, I saw the place anew, and it looked even more gorgeous than ever before in the last 20 years. I laughed to myself at myself as I enjoyed this unexpected moment of bliss to the full.

All to Myself

As I gave thanks again and made my way back down the trail, I felt so fine that I picked up every bit of trash I saw along the path, and there were many bits. Rather than continue my inner diatribe against the thoughtlessness engendered by a throwaway culture, I wanted to allow others to enjoy some inkling of what I had just felt and continued to feel. Towards the end of the trail, I greeted the first human I’d seen that day…who did not even reply. In fact he seemed rather afraid of me. I then recalled recent press and social media regarding discrimination in the woods and could only assume that he, like many others, was intimidated by the resonant boom of my southern intoned morning greeting. Saddened for a moment at the thought that I superficially represent an assumedly racist point of view because of the way I look and sound, in the next moment I remembered that many others face far worse responses. Considering further, I had to admit that I rather enjoyed the ability of my tone to quiet obnoxious trail conversations from silly busybodies. However, this hiker did not fit that description, and he might have simply been of a similar quiet mindset in our shared environment.

Returning to camp after this brief 5 mile hike, I had the entirety really of a beautiful day to spend along the river…which I did. After some limited journaling with a nerve damaged right hand still not allowing prolonged control of a handheld writing utensil, I began reading Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, first on the hot sand, then by the river, then in the hammock. I looked around camp to note the size, complexion and distance of the trees nearby to determine how they might be interacting at this very moment, talking to one another, critiquing the campers possibly. Mixing a few Hemingway Green Isaacs throughout the day, I maintained hydration and relaxation until again the sun fell behind the ridge line.

Just before sundown around 10 pm, I threw together a bowl of rice, beans, chicken, sour cream and salsa instead of opting to spend more time with meal prep as I most often do. Too hot to eat too much, I enjoyed the freedom from meal prep to set up the bivy sack (12 oz.) that I wanted to test here before relying upon it in deeper wilderness. Definitely a snug fit with a mat and a sleeping bag, I still nearly fell asleep within minutes in the ultra lightweight backpacking shelter which allowed for unobstructed star gazing without exposure to bugs and bug bites. Excited by the possibilities of traveling even more lightly, I returned to another glorious (and safely girded) campfire to reflect about past trips to the area, friends with whom I’d shared it through the years, the beauty of the subtle differences between the many adventures.

I allowed myself a little more time in the sack the following morning, still trying to determine my plan for the day. I was undecided whether I wished to remain at the site until the 2 pm checkout, again basking in the the sunshine, dipping in the icy cold river, reading in the hammock or whether to strike out on another hike earlier in the day in hopes that the temperatures would not quite reach the 90’s. Feeling the soreness of sleeping on the ground for a couple of nights as is my constant condition, I opted for a morning yoga session in the sunshine which gave me both relief and energy for the day. I would indeed be hiking to the mountain lakes nearby.

Talking Trees

Settled upon my direction, I still left time to read further up on the Hidden Lives of these trees surrounding me. A book I had been given as a Christmas gift and had forgotten until another friend reminded me, my timing for beginning it was impeccable. I had not given the working processes of trees so much consideration since my days in the Redwoods, but Wollheben’s perspectives had reopened my eyes to the depth of interconnection largely unnoticed among nonhuman life. Everywhere I looked I began to see the landscape differently, noting the seamless synchronicity of growth and decay perpetuating the forest life around me, not just of trees but of everything in the forest. With the other campers in my area vacating their sites quite early, I scouted those nearby to determine other possibilities for future trips and found a few I had overlooked for some years. Listening for a clean start to my car and cleaning a layer of fir pollen from my windshield, I gave thanks again to this new favorite as I putted slowly away from camp on the dirt road.

Arriving at today’s trailhead, I noticed trash strewn everywhere along the ground from the parked cars to and around the trailhead. The garbage can at the trailhead was overflowing, and refuse littered the ground for yards around it. Silently uttering “more garbage from garbage people,” I decided to change my entry point for the route rather than begin the hike in my current critical mindset. As I humped it up the steep hillside minutes later from a lesser known point of departure, my frustration passed away quickly, supplanted by a far more engaging view of Mt. Jefferson in the distance. Climbing over the saddle, I began to notice snow and ice along the trail which pleasantly surprised me, given the news of early drought. Aware of the desiccating forest floor and its portent, I was actually relieved by the challenge of ice flows in my path requiring more concentration and careful footing.

When I reached the mountain lake, I encountered another who corroborated my impression of the balancing force of time in the woods as we commiserated about our challenges during the COIVD pandemic and our gratitude for the opportunity to be where we were in the present moment. Wishing him well, I then planted myself in the sun, encountering no one else for some time. I leapt from the rope swing into a lake surprisingly warm despite the snow through which I had just passed. Cautioned about the extreme cold of the water by this fellow traveler, I was surprised at how comfortable I found the temperature. After 25 years in the Northwest, I was pleased to have confirmation of my acclimation to cooler waters. Taking in the breeze, the swaying branches overhead, the shimmer of the water, its cool, blue depths; I reminded myself that this was indeed one version of a Heaven that I could imagine. Chuckling again to myself, I dismissed my early trepidation about crowds, trash, noise; and simply enjoyed the moment that I had found, rather than any I had imagined.

Happy Camper

As I returned along the well groomed, downward slope of the PCT, I allowed myself to look more closely again at the forest in transition: trees of the same and different species and subspecies, young and old, in different states of growth and decay, all connected underground and managing the integration of the whole through quiet electrical impulses far too slow for human register. I reveled in the subtlety of such slow moving power as I pondered the masses of intertwining roots along the trail: sustaining nutrients collectively, sharing light, protecting each other from pest invasion, synchronizing reproduction for optimal success in light of the most challenging probabilities imaginable. Seemed like a community I would like to join.

Electrified by the magic of shifted perspective, I was reminded again of what I must have come out to relearn, that my expectations are often my greatest limitations to the experience of anything really new or different. Adhering too strongly to what is really only conjecture (no matter how informed) of the past, I prevent myself from being able to experience anything genuine in the moment for my focus upon the anticipation of future unfolding. Here, I again nearly allowed an inherited focus on the perfection of circumstance beyond my control to determine my perception, and hence my agency. Thankfully, the trees spoke loudly enough to wake me from my self-absorbed slumber with a reminder that old things may indeed become wonderfully new with a change in one’s point of view.

Published by Theron W. Wells III

Voiceover Artist and Actor. Southern Drawl and Infectious Grin. Portland, Oregon.

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