Monday, November 16, 2015

Sameness, Newness

When I was young, my hikes were all about the next horizon, the next summit.  I rarely went to the same place twice, because I craved the new.  Now that I am older, I find that I can encounter newness on the same trail over and over again.  What is different?

My attention, of course.  Today, I'm hiking the Dillard Street loop, which I have probably hiked over a hundred times since I moved to Eugene.  Every time I go, it's new. 

Today, as I cross the little footbridge that leads into the woods, I see a dead fall to my right, an Alder that came down in a windstorm two years ago.  It didn't make it to the ground.  It got caught in the fork of a White Oak.  Now it has lost its bark and its limbs and it is only dead wood, shiny with rain, laying in the arms of the Oak.  As I stand there looking at the dead fall, a yellow maple leaf somersaults down from above, and lands in and Alder bush, suspended, not three feet from my shoulder.  It is so quiet here that the leaf actually makes a sound I can hear when it lands.  On the other side of the creek valley I'm walking in, a very tall Douglas Fir has leaned over onto its comrades.  By the end of the winter, this giant will fall to the ground.

As I continue to climb, the light comes up briefly as the clouds part, back lighting the leaves and trees to the south, turning the hanging raindrops into shiny jewels.  At the next footbridge, I notice the little creek isn't running yet.  But at the next two bridges ,higher up it is, making small splashy sounds as it leaps down from one tiny pond to the next.

Another half mile takes me to the ridge top, where the trail surface changes from rocky to packed earth, covered with a thick padding of pine needles and maple leaves.  Up here, the Douglas Fir thins out and there is more Madrone, including a very large one I had not noticed before.  Madrones shed their bark, revealing deep red wood underneath.  This one is tall and bendy, and the rain has made it's inner wood shine in the sunlight.

Further along the ridge, I step out into a clear cut and there are open views of the valleys and hills beyond.  Two valleys away, mist rises from the hollow.  At my feet a tiny brown mushroom has pushed thought the pine needles.  It wasn't there last weekend.  Further down the ridge line to the east, a small rotted out tree stump is dry inside and tiny plants thrive there, sheltered from the winter weather.  Now the clear cut reveals views of the summit of Spencer's Butte, another view I have not noticed in my many walks up here.

As I watch, a dark cloud appears from the South West and the Butte vanishes.  The wind comes up and the air begins to smell earthy and wet, and slightly metallic.  There is rain on the way. To the south the rain clouds are lit by sunlight breaking through the clouds, and they shine. Now the trail turns back to the west and loses elevation.  Here the hillside is very steep, vertical in places.  To my left, a silent, sturdy phalanx of Douglas Firs lines the trail.

The last mile of my walk repeats the first, but it is not the same mile.  Now I walk a mirror image of the first mile.  I see the other side of every tree, shrub and stone.  The heavy rain cloud that made Spencer's Butte disappear has arrived.  The wind comes up, the air smells heavy, and now the rain starts to fall, pouring down, and cold.  The woods are transformed. The light is subdued, almost like twilight, as if I were in a private place.  The rain drums down onto trees, leaves and my rain gear, creating a symphony of sound.  At a footbridge, I hear voices, very clearly.  I am used to hearing things in the woods, things that my mind turns into voices, to chase away the quiet.  But these voices are so real.

Just about the time I think I am having a true psychic experience, I see them; a young couple hunkered down under the bridge, escaping from the driving rain.  I finish out the last mile, the rain making everything bright, and just as I arrive at the car, a lingering peal of thunder announces the end of my walk.

This, my latest walk on the brand-new Dillard Street loop.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Ridge hike

Last Sunday I hiked up my favorite hill right outside of town.  I don't know why, but a half mile in I turned and followed an abandoned road up a steep hill.  Mostly I avoid roads because they don't offer the experience of being in the trees, and that is what I crave.  This road paralleled the ridge I usually walk, so I had some confidence I would be able to climb a little further east and get on top, maybe somewhere different from my usual hike.

Sure enough, about a mile east I saw an opening leading into the dense brush.  Soon I was climbing an obscure trail toward the ridge line.  As I topped out, I saw a man standing there at the summit.  He asked me if I was almost done with my hike.  The weather was closing in and I assume he was thinking I met get caught in it.  "Depends on where the day takes me I guess," I told him.

I turned west and soon found myself on a two-lane blacktop road.  The trail didn't connect to my ridge line.  I knew it was out there though, off to my right.  So as the weather closed in and the rain started to fall I got into my rain gear and wandered down the road, scanning to the right for the classic tell-tale; a space in the brush, an narrow opening, a wider than average space between two trees.  It was raining hard, and no one was about.

Sure enough, I saw it, about a half mile on: a barely- there opening between the trees.  I jumped the ditch at the side of the road and stepped up onto the trail.  Walked into the deep trees.  Rain tapped on my hat and coat and the tall Douglas Firs swayed  in the south west breeze with a shushing sound, a sound I've always known.  The woods were dark and the trail disappeared into mist about a hundred yards out.

Everything fell away, except the rhythm of my movement, and the swaying trees, dripping rain.  Mist before and behind closed my attention down to this place and time.  I joined the ridge trail and turned west. And for another hour, every step was home.

Sunday, November 8, 2015


Thursday morning, driving up I-5 to work, I spent the entire trip in an agitated, desperate state, thinking about a situation at work, only to find upon arriving at the office that it wasn't at all what I thought it had been.  On another day I spent an hour in fear, about a voice mail on my phone that I  didn't want to play because I assumed it was bad news about my mother.  When I played the message, I discovered the news was good; my mother is doing well, and is coming home from the hospital.

Sometimes I wonder if we get attached to these mistaken perceptions of what's happening in our world partly because facing the truth can be humbling. The truth is that we are capable of making assumptions about our world that are wildy mistaken. On top of that, the emotions can be so convnicing that we forget to look at the evidence, which is the events that we actually know about.

The power over these states, of course, is the deceptively simple act of bare attention.  Lately, when I find my mind racing, I ask myself, "what is happening now?"  The question has a powerful way of reminding me that almost all of the moments in my life are beautiful, quiet and loving.  The hard moments can so hard, but the truth is that the overwhelming majority of the moments in my life are magical opportunities to watch the leaves fall, see the rain clouds lower the sky, or feel joy on seeing a loved one.

What is happening now?  I'm sitting in my little pub, writing this column.  Outside, there is a row of maple trees, yellow with autumn.  As I watch, a single leaf floats down from one of them every time there is a breeze.  A heavy, dark porter sits next to my computer and every sip is a subtle dance of aroma, flavor and texture.  Elizabeth smiled at me, Dan asked me about my day, and Diane hugged me, like she always does.