As mentioned several times in I, Too, Heard The Owl, ALS has robbed me of one of my greatest passions, hiking, and it’s been over two years since the last time I laced up my boots.
Well, it’s been particularly sunny and — except in the shade — warm here in Bellingham for the past week, a small but deeply welcome consolation during our Coronavirus quaratine. Normally, I would take even more advantage of this weather, seeking refuge from outbreak anxiety and cabin fever out on some hiking trail or another.
As a writing experiment, then, I thought it would be interesting to try heading out on one of my favorite hikes virtually, completely reconstructed from memory. For a bit of added challenge, I’ll shift between 1st, 2nd, and 3rd-person narrative.
After all of the amazing places I’ve hiked over my 26 yeas living in Bellingham, my first hike upon arrival in 1993, Fragrance Lake, a relatively brief but beautiful 5.5 miles roundtrip, remains one of my absolute favorites.
Just 5 miles from my first home in town, 8 miles from my current domicile, by way of meandering Chuckanut Drive, hugging the coastline, foothills to the east, the Salish Sea and San Juan Islands to the west, is Larrabee State Park. While the primary attraction of the park is the campground and access to the rock and tree-lined coast, on the other side of the road is an equally beloved natural playground for hikers, trailrunners, mountain bikers, rock climbers, etc.: the trail-laced Chuckanuts, the only foothills in the entire Cascade Mountain range that reach all the way east to the sea.
You access the Fragrance Lake trailhead directly across the road from the state park entrance, and within the very first moments on the very first of many switchbacks, previewing the modest 950 ft. total elevation gain, the road and its cars quickly fade away. In a minute, you cross the intersecting Interurban Trail, which parallels Chuckanut Drive all the way into town, and a minute later you’ll find yourself standing in a cathedral of sorts, a combination of old and second growth forest, where even the second-growth Western Red Cedar and Douglas Fir tower so high above they bring to mind the glorious Redwoods of coastal Northern California.
You’ll need no clergy in this cathedral. Just relax into the dense blanket of moss, lichen, bark, fungi, salal and fern in which you are gently wrapped. Take in the sunlight, dappled even on the sunniest of days as it shines through the canopy. Listen to the choir of birds singing a hymn, it seems, composed just for you. And, whether you are aiming to commune with God, or a god, or gods and goddesses, or sainted souls or spirits, there’s a very good chance that contact of some kind can happen.
There’s a brief little ritual that Howard invokes when out hiking on his own. See, he’s a mostly extroverted fellow, which is not a problem when accompanied on the trail by a friend or two, but when alone he finds it helpful to get into a different headspace, and so he stops before the big push up the first proper switchback, and he takes a moment and summons a quote from Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, a quote he has committed to memory.
Ray Smith (Kerouac) and Japhy Ryder (the poet Gary Snyder) were hiking and camping through Muir Woods, on past Mt. Tamalpais, on their way to Stinson Beach, and at one point Japhy, always in better physical condition and consistently ahead of Ray on the trail, shouts back at him:
“Try the meditation of the trail, just walk along looking at the trail at your feet and don’t look about and just fall into a trance as the ground zips by.”
And the simple memory of that passage, from that book that had been so instrumental in leading Howard to the Pacific Northwest, was enough to reorient him to the simple pleasures of solo hiking. And as he started upward, he remembered, as he always does, that he’s not alone after all, that he is surrounded by fellow lifeforms, he might not be able to converse with them about music, books, movies, politics, etc., but then, he has absolutely no need to do so.
In my experience, when a hike destination is a ridge or summit, some kind of warp in spacetime occurs. The effect — the ridge/summit seems to visually get closer and closer, however small the increments, while actual progress is minimal — intensifies on trails with lots of switchbacks. My guess, from my layman’s perspective, is that it has something to do with how the switchbacks cause the hiker to change directions every few minutes, this pattern of movement triggers responses from the earth’s polarized magnetic field, which then interacts with various characteristics of earth’s gravity, thus causing confusion in the areas of the brain involved in time perception: frontal cortex, basal ganglia, parietal cortex, cerebellum, and hippocampus.
About two thirds of the way up the Fragrance Lake trail, no matter how many times I’ve completed the hike (actual number = many), I am convinced I’m VERY close to the ridge, just a turn or two to go, where the trail ceases its climb and continues level a short distance to its namesake lake. Instead, I come upon a sign for a short spur trail that leads, in a matter of feet rather than miles, to a lookout spot affording an expansive and gorgeous view of the sea and the islands, as well as, on a clear day, the Olympic Mountains to the southwest and the Canadian Coast Mountains to the northwest.
It may be a compulsion, the good kind I’d argue, but I can never walk this trail without taking the short detour to the viewpoint, even if for the briefest of glimpses and a few deep breaths, before returning upward and onward.
As captivating as the eye-level perspective is, you’ll want to be sure to check out a forest feature oft overlooked and underappreciated: roots.
Roots, you see, hold it all together. Slowing erosion, they simultaneously feed all of the trees, from saplings to mighty adults.
But, to the hiker, the most interesting thing you should notice is that the roots, most noticeable at the hairpin turns in the switchbacks, form a kind of staircase, up and down which you and your fellow trail travelers make your way. A root crosses a trail, soil up-slope settles in and compacts behind the root, and down-slope the soil erodes away, resulting in an elegant step, perfectly integrated, not always an easy stride, but many’s the time you’ll prefer an awkward stride stair-to-stair to no stair at all.
Back on the main trail, Howard approached the last set of switchbacks with a little more spring in his step. Passing the occasional hiker or two or three, smiles and greetings were exchanged as these comrades in boots made their way back down from the lake. When he approached a small wooden footbridge, Howard knew he was very close, and sure enough, through the trees he began to see glimpses of Fragrance Lake, that usually placid body of water, more of a pond than a lake, which is ironic, because it always reminded him of Walden Pond, despite the fact that Walden is considerably larger and surrounded mostly by deciduous trees.
The trail completes a 0.6-mile loop around the lake, never far from the shore, and occasionally, on the north side, following the contours of massive sandstone boulders, some 40-50 feet high. Another Howard ritual: Find this one spot on the shore on the far side of the lake, where there’s a small zig-zaggy path from the trail to the water, and right at the water a large rock serves as a perfect picnic spot.
Over the years, I’ve logged quite a lot of time sitting beside and thinking about this pond of a lake. It’s a VERY popular hike, and so it wouldn’t be surprising if it was regularly too crowded to serve as a place of quiet contemplation. But somehow, against the odds, there’s always some little nook to be found, a private little cove at the water’s edge, a perch atop a boulder, a secret vestibule under a latticed roof of moss-laden branches.
So I’d take out my journal or a book I’m in the middle of, and I’d try to make the most of these stolen moments by letting go of the pull to do anything else, to simply be there, no need for accomplishment, no need to establish or pursue goals or parameters, 15 minutes, an hour and a half, I’d know it was time to move on. I always knew.
If you are sitting on a rock beside a lake left behind many years ago by a retreating glacier, perhaps you’re eating an apple, some trail mix, hydrating, if you’re real quiet and look out across the surface of the water long enough you’ll observe much more than what you’d expect from such a simple composition.
There’s the various strata: the shore near your feet meets the water, the water meets the trees reflected in the water, the reflected tree trunks meet the real tree trunks at the edge of the lake, and finally the jagged line where the tops of the conifer trees meet the sky. Then, you could conduct a methodical inventory of all the details you notice if you focus on one stratum at a time, like the tadpoles scurrying in the rocks near the shore, or the wake on the surface of the lake left behind by three ducks taking flight, or the dog plunging into the water after a tossed ball.
There’s always that twinge of melancholy, Howard notices, when it’s time to break away and head back downhill, but it’s quickly accompanied and then overtaken by that familiar feeling, a feeling that, he decides, is much like mild intoxication. His legs and feet initially seem heavier, but in a good way, until he gets his circulation pumping again, delivering fresh, oxygenated blood to those muscles that did all their awesome ambulatory magic getting him to the lake. Then, the euphoria kicks in, that feeling that he could very well just keep going and walk around the entire planet if he really wanted to, and often there was no trivial amount of serious consideration.
His shirt, wet with sweat, serves as another reminder of the worthwhile effort required to do this hiking thing. To call it a workout cheapens it, reducing the experience to some prescription from a doctor or a self-driven vanity pursuit.
Howard was never a runner. He either never mastered good technique or he just didn’t have the knees for it. Still, there was always that moment coming down the hill when, for just a few minutes he’d let gravity do its thing, allowing himself to transition from walk to trot to gallup. And there was always this flash of a smile that would overtake him, sometimes he’d feel the desire to let out one of those Walt Whitman barbaric yawps, occasionally he actually did. But, rather than barbaric, he concludes, he feels the yawp comes from that place deep inside where the child retreated as the man emerged.