“Clarity” reads a license plate in the parking lot at work.
I sulk as I walk past it to my car. It’s ironic to find a plate like that in the Pacific Northwest, where it remains cloudy and gray and rains most of the year. I immediately despise the driver for his blatant optimism. When I get to my car, I throw my security badge and purse on the passenger seat. The afternoon is still early and I need out of Portland. I need to lace up my hiking boots. I need to stretch my legs and breathe. Mostly, I need a break from the memories that haunt me.
[bctt tweet=”I need to lace up my hiking boots. I need to stretch my legs and breathe.”]
I drive down the highway to the trailhead at Wahkeena Falls. Through the mist I see large maple leaves hanging over the road, each break in the concrete and stone softened with moss. Ferns cling to every crevice. The Northwest is a rainforest overflowing with lush vegetation of innumerable varieties. Lewis and Clark catalogued many of these native plants and animals, assigning labels to previously unnamed species. I find a place to park among the dense trees and wet rock. I think about my name: Leah. In Hebrew, Leah means “weary.”
The hike begins with an immediate bridge crossing at the falls, which throw a powerful mist across my face as I pass. I recall the last time I hiked this trail: I was alone then too, but I was also beautiful and strong, and full of hope for the future. I remember being happy. Before trauma. Before I got no rest and paced the house at all hours of the night. Before I moved in a fog of anti-depressant/anti-anxiety/anti-being medications. Before examining all the kitchen knives and therapy became necessary. That was a long time ago.
Of life before the fog, I remember trees, rivers and mountains. I remember the sound of a breeze in a grove of aspens and the smell of hot earth. I remember the feel of warm sun on my skin while laying exposed on a summit. I remember peace. This is what calls my feet to the trail, though there will be no quaking aspens to hear today. My friends are giant cedars and old-growth Douglas firs dripping of weepy lichens. There will be no laying naked on some peak. The day is far too cold and wet, and the trail too often traveled.
[bctt tweet=”My friends are giant cedars and old-growth Douglas firs dripping of weepy lichens.”]
I’ve hit a shelf of steep switchbacks and I stop often to breathe and readjust my pack. A raincoat, half-empty water bottle and a tattered copy of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek are hardly weighty companions but I feel overwhelmed already. The remembrance of previous conversations weighs on me. “What you want is a logical reason for something emotional and irrational,” my therapist told me a week earlier over a box of tissues. “Yes” I told him. “I do.” I couldn’t see the problem. I’ve learned to ask pointed questions, although the responses I get are still vague. Including from him. I had asked how a person continues to hurt someone they love while also repeatedly professing remorse. How is the contradiction justified? I recall a similar conversation a friend told me she had with her counselor. “The head cannot answer a heart question” was his lesson for her. It seems as though the head requires black and white, while the heart is a Jackson Pollack No. 14 Gray. “I need to know something that makes sense, regardless of whether I like it or not” I had told him. “Well…” he offered, “You will probably never get it. Can you figure out a way to move on without it?”
I remember that Wahkeena Spring remains ahead. I push on, my calves and chest throbbing. I watch myself put one foot in front of the other and think how long I’ve been going in circles. I spent the previous two years grieving over my love’s nasty habit with a nasty co-worker: Cheat. Proclaim disgust for self. Apologize. Promise to fix. Repeat. My response: Feeling wounded. Feeling disappointed. Feeling sympathy. Feeling inadequate, responsible, defeated. Feeling forgiveness. Feeling optimistic. Repeat. Feeling too much. Still feeling so much that my chest aches and, on occasion, the air escapes from my lungs without warning, sending me to my knees in full-blown panic.
More weight: I am tortured by painful images. Text messages. E-mails. Naked pictures she sent to him. Her jewelry next to the bed. Her clothes thrown in a chair. Condom wrappers on the floor. Finding them together – the look on his face. These memories are what steal my breath and drive my nightmares. These are the images that make me weary.
My foot slips on loose rock and I jolt, throw my arms wide and catch myself in time from twisting an ankle. I should be paying attention to the trail instead of replaying heart injuries. When I right myself I notice I’ve climbed a considerable altitude already, and am standing in a break of trees with a clear view of the Columbia River and Beacon Rock. The place seems as good as any for a taste of water and Annie Dillard. I drop my pack and dig for the book. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek has trekked up and down mountains with me, through streams and thickets in every season and weather imaginable. The book is starting to look road-weary, like me. I flip to a worn page. I know the passage by heart – I’ve read it and re-read it a hundred times. Still, I prefer to feel the book in my hands, smell the paper and see the image rise from the page as it has every time before:
Mountains are giant, restful, absorbent. You can heave your spirit into a mountain and the mountain will keep it, folded, and not throw it back as some creeks will. The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But the mountains are home.
(Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)
I lift my eyes from the page. Looking down on the river, I begin to think my love was like the water and myself the mountain. He was non-committal, unpredictable, and free to change course and moods often – which he did. Sometimes he swelled with such passion that carried me away, other times he was quiet and passive. I let him flow where he chose while I looked on and waited. It tmust have seemed exciting to him to join forces with other water – for a time. Inevitably the creek will divert and the marsh must dry up. The mountain remains. I remember telling him once that I thought he felt about water the way I feel about trees: essential for survival of the spirit. He had nodded in agreement. I realize now he couldn’t have known what to do with a mountain. Perhaps I’m to blame for trying to hold water.
I put the book away and turn back to the trail, resuming my upward climb. Wahkeena Creek Mtumbles down the tslope to my right, then left, then right again. Bleeding Heart is blooming in the thick moss along the banks. Beyond, a bright red spot catches my eye: an airy Western Columbine peeks her head from behind dense vegetation. The flower instantly reminds me of my home in Colorado: the home that contained the life I shared with a man I loved, and the home I left because I felt he gave me no choice. A similar Columbine grows there, tucked beneath a ledge of the porch. I was always amazed at the delicate plant’s fortitude in overcoming harsh winters, dying back in fall and bursting forth like a flame each spring.
It seems the switchbacks are never-ending and I move slow. From behind, a young man passes me on the narrow trail. He does not carry a pack. He also does not seem weary and he isn’t heaving from the exertion, as I am. He is swift and out-of-sight in no time. I feel a little pressure in his wake to move faster but I ignore it. I knew a man who could hike like that, with seemingly little effort.
I recall a sunny hike we took, early in our relationship. It was mid-summer in Colorado’s high country. The grass dazzled, dotted with alpine wildflowers and the water of Trout Creek ran translucent. We had hiked miles to the creek, myself paces behind him as usual. From a ledge above a pool I watched him fly fish. He stood hip-deep, the cool water swirling around his form and the line making smooth “S” shapes above his head. He fished with incredible precision and ease; the rod a mere extension of his body. He had a natural talent that I admired. The fish struck, and in what seemed one effortless motion, he had a perfect cutthroat in his hands.
Out of breath I finally arrive at the top of the staircase of switchbacks. A signpost reads “Devil’s Rest” with an arrow pointing left and “Angel’s Rest” with an arrow pointing right. Today, I choose neither. My destination is simply Wahkeena Spring, around the next corner.
The spring emerges from the ground with force, pounding over stones and thick roots, exposed from the constant beating.
Abused, still these cedars flourish – the roots bright red and polished smooth like a tumbled beach agate. I marvel at nature’s ability to endure and the beauty of it. Aching to be polished as well, I take off my boots to slip my feet into the clear water. I breathe deep. My mind returns to Trout Creek, recalling the details as if it happened yesterday: the way he turned to smile at me, holding forth the cutthroat like a treasure; a rainbow in a single bead of water rolling off its head, reflecting the color in its scales. The love I felt deep in my chest I knew was on my face, and the radiance of that moment was enough to drive away any cloud.
Refreshed by the spring, I may have found some clarity after all. Moments like those are my treasures: to bring out, turn over in my hand, inspect – even kiss – then tuck safely back in my pocket. Suddenly I feel extremely blessed to be burdened; grateful to be weary. I recognize the weight that I carry is not just from pain, but also from moments of pure pleasure and deep love, and those moments outnumber and overpower the others. Somehow knowing this makes me less remorseful over where I’ve been and more capable of the travel ahead.
I pull on my boots and linger for one more clear breath before heading down the trail. I may never get an answer to the question I ask, although that seems less necessary now. I’m learning to understand that this journey is not black and white, but it is also not gray. The trail offers innumerable treasures in a full spectrum of color. If ever I need reassurance, all I need to do is slip my hand into my pocket.