Lessons Through the Body
In late August of 2013, I walked with some writer friends around Mount Hood. This website features a few photos taken by one of those writers, Jon Bell, who happens to be one of the toughest hikers I know.
When you tell people that you hiked around the mountain, they usually picture a mostly flat trail. They don’t know about the canyons and pack weight and how fast the weather can change on a mountain even in summertime.
You learn about people, fast, while hiking in wilderness. On mile twelve, in a sudden thunderstorm, say. You see how they react to fatigue and soreness, and occasionally, to piercing uncertainty.
As for Jon Bell, he’s one of those people who show grace under pressure. On that forty-one mile Timberline Trail journey, which ended up being about nine times harder than any of us had anticipated, I witnessed Jon in some gnarly conditions. At six thousand feet in an epic thunderstorm that no expert had forecast, we had some choices to make, and Jon’s composure helped everyone stay focused.
He’s also one hell of a photographer.
For four days and three nights on that stunning, searing hike, we were immersed in the real world. Phones put away. Food on our backs. Those long miles climbing toward McNeil Point or up out of Eliot Canyon. That riveted attention and awe. So soon out in wilderness, the frenzied world falls away and you tap into something more elemental, it’s true. It’s still present in us, that connection to the real world, distracted as we are these days. It sometimes takes a couple of hours to access it. Lessons through the body.
On Day Two of our journey around the mountain, the wild thunderstorm day, one in our group suffered mid-stage hypothermia. Serious stuff. A few times on the following day, we took the wrong turn. Potentially serious. Once, I heard behind me, just upslope maybe twenty yards away, a rustling then a burst of quick footfalls, and I was sure that it was a cougar, though no one else wanted to believe me. “Addled, you are.”
After a slow, difficult crossing of Eliot Canyon down and up scree, then getting pushed off balance by hard winds at seven thousand feet, we switched on our headlamps and crossed Newton Creek in the dusk and finally reached a tiny campsite. Another in our group, the poet John Morrison, managed to summon the concentration and good humor to prepare a delicious pasta dinner for everyone. Amen.
We took our time on the last day. Savored the bee-humming meadows, the rivulets and wildflowers. The sky was clear, the air warm. We crossed White River, then slogged a few more miles uphill toward Timberline Lodge. We were whipped. Just clobbered. But when the lodge came into view, and the parking lot with its hundreds of glinting vehicles, we paused for a minute and stared. The human world again, after four days away. Imagine that.
In the parking lot, we took off our boots and sat on the warm asphalt behind my car, not ready to let the experience end. Morrison had brought a little cooler full of Tecate and stashed it in my trunk, and so we sat there with vehicles rolling past us now and then and we drank the cold beers, our bodies ringing with fatigue and pain, swollen feet pulsating, and I swear, for the longest time we were giddy, we couldn’t stop grinning. The mountain still had us spellbound, grateful and humbled, gripped in the vivid and precious reality of our bodies moving onward over the earth, around the next bend.