Day 5

[Many thanks to the men who made me laugh until I cried all weekend. That may be the only wedding I ever attend where all the groomsmen are comedians. I highly recommend this for anyone who can pull it off. Even the waitstaff, caterers, and DJ were so highly entertained throughout the evening that at one point I saw two of them clutching each other in laughter while another was bent at the waist, bracing himself against his knees. The wedding was almost a mini college reunion and full of even more re-connections that I could have hoped for.] [Enter: The Alaska part of the trip…]

My “home” was the urban landscape of a smartly-zoned city, Portland, Oregon. But the “home” that made me who I am ran in lines from that city, connecting to mountain ranges and bodies of water as far north as British Columbia, as far south as Mt. Shasta (California), as far east as Wyoming’s Wind River range, and as far west as the Pacific Ocean. When I reflect on growing up, I can say quite literally that my psycho-spiritual horizons broadened in direct correlation with my physical horizons, so that with each new terrain explored I came more and more into my own. That “growing up” picks up where it left off with each return trip to the region I have come to call “home.” Coming back to this place as an adult, a layer of trace paper is pressed over that corner of the United States and more lines are added, branching out from Portland, Seattle, and occasionally Walla Walla. In short, I cannot experience this terrain without a sense of biographical history.

Spending several weeks each summer from the ages of 9-18 on the trail with a frame pack on my back, I gained a solid appreciation of just how different one mile can feel from another. One mile along the Oregon Coastal Range in the old growth forest can be an easy stroll, for instance, with marionberries along the trail. The smell of fresh sap and seawater mingling with these unique berries has remained nameless to me my entire life if only for the fact that it is so precious, I prefer to let it live in the realm of the ethereal. Home Ground doesn’t have a word for it either, but does offer this definition of old growth forest: “Forest, as elder, where trees coexist in the full spectrum of their development—from seedling to sapling to ancient to snag and generative nurse log: old-growth forest features include thick duff, trees hoary with age, and certain indicator species that rely on the settled richness of variety in plant, insect, lichen, and other life forms…” (251).

One mile into the Llamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park feels like something akin to walking on water, though there it is not the wide water of the Llamar that lifts you up—it is the spaciousness of the valley itself, speckled with a few hundred buffalo. Add a double-rainbow in the aftermath of a storm and it is a sight so perfectly formed that the trail provides a bounce-back of weightlessness with each step you take.

In contrast, one mile into the Wallowa Mountains of northeastern Oregon ascending from the lake and small town may feel like some unholy version of an endless climb. One mile, and you still have two more to go before even glimpsing the Lostine River Valley. One mile and your blisters are already nickel-sized across the back of each heel. One mile and you have forgotten, it seems, the physics of balance. But oh, when you reach that V-shaped valley: “Water, depending on its velocity, cuts down into rock, engorges itself in rock, and keeps cutting…Some rivers tend to flow in a straight line; thus the sediments they carry quickly erode the rocks below and carve a classic V-shape…”378).

One mile on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State is immeasurable. All at once you are so small and utterly un-separate from the weeping rainforest, from the herds of elk, from the trailer-sized nurse logs, from the thousand unseen eyes that can see you, that time and distance fantastically escape you. Here, I suppose, William DeBuys definition of wilderness in Home Ground seems fitting and I will quote it almost in full:

“Wilderness is a cultural, not an ecological concept. While its meaning and the values that attach to it have shifted through the ages, it stands essentially for the land and space where culture is not, or at least where the impacts of human culture are minimal…[such as] the comparatively prosaic concepts of backcountry, bush, or the ‘high lonesome’ and the administrative designation conceived by Aldo Leopold as ‘a continuous stretch of country preserved in its natural state…big enough to absorb a two weeks’ pack trip, and kept devoid of…works of man.’ The most powerful of all definitions of wilderness is to be found in the 1964 Wilderness Act: ‘A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.’ The National Wilderness Preservation System, which the act established, now includes over 105 million acres of federal land, more than half of which is in Alaska. Irony necessarily abides in so protean a term: land that westering white Americans in the nineteenth century judged to be wilderness was home ground from the point of view of native tribes, and the birth of the wilderness preservation movement in the twentieth century occurred only after the lands on which it focused had been substantially tamed by the removal of the natives who in habited them. Today wilderness remains one of the most evocative concepts in American culture. It might be said to describe any place on land (or sea) where the powers of nature are paramount and where the call of the wild might be heard. Ed Abbey, among many others, has meditated on its meaning: ‘Wilderness. The word itself is music. Wilderness, wilderness…We scarcely know what we mean by the term, though the sound of it draws all whose nerves and emotions have not yet been irreparably stunned, deadened, numbed by the caterwauling of commerce, the sweating scramble for profit and domination.’”

A million ways to walk a mile through the wilderness and a million miles waiting to be walked. Today I glimpsed the far north Cascades (where they join the Coastal Range and curve on upward into Alaska).for the first time in my life. The flight from Seattle to Anchorage is 3 1/2 hours and we cruised above the range for more than 1,000 miles. Another line has been drawn on the map in my mind, the bravest arm reaching to the highest peaks and the “wildest” of places.

One hour off the plane, I’m eating lunch with Michael, who has it in mind to skip the day hikes altogether and set out tomorrow morning on a backpacking trip. We’re eating buffalo burgers with sweet yam dressing. A taxi driver has just told me, in response to my inquiry, “What time does the sun set?” that, “The sun will set next week, when the clouds roll back in.” Michael and I agree to leave tomorrow at 6am. I’ll be searching for the feel of one mile in Alaska and already I can tell I will have to walk many, many more before I can find it.

Hatcher Pass at the Craigie Creek trailhead in the Talkeetna Mountains. Length of stay will be 3-4 days.

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