A few nights ago that familiar need for adventure struck again as I sat at my desk, plugging away at some biochemistry, but out of a sort of curiosity, I decided to delay my plan for a run until after nightfall. I did so out a curiosity born from an interview that I had seen with Kilian Jornet (recently discovered by the USA it seems) in which he spoke in beautiful Catalan about the experience of running at night. I have tremendous respect towards Kilian both for his humility and because he seems to find great joy, becoming absorbed in the mountains, even when he is competing. His description of relying on all senses to move at night spurred me to wait until dusk.
As the sun finally fell, I ran from my apartment with a headlamp, slowly working my way through the few streets between me and the woods. As I reached a familiar turn in among the trees, the forest closed round me, reducing my awareness to the bubble of light bobbing from my head. Rocks and roots appear different by headlamp, their shadows bounding confoundingly about, making visual experience somewhat unreliable. I was clumsy for the first mile or two as my feet learned to be lighter and more responsive, my stride higher over unseen obstacles, and my mind more open than just to my sight.
Surprisingly soon, though, I settled into that animal awareness which is always so surprisingly accessible, despite intervening generations of farmers. Though we sit in swivel chairs for much of the day, our genes have not forgotten the jungle. If anything, the forest that I ran through was louder by night, my ears reaching around me to find the small squeaks of the bridge and the rustle of the foliage as I drifted past. The blossoms of trilliums bobbed their heads in time as I passed, ghostly white in the dark undergrowth. Fresh, wet dog tracks came out of the stream and across the wooden bridge at the bottom of the canyon, reminding me of the big cat sighted up here recently. Think about a cougar in the dark and see if you don’t find more swiftness in your step.
Rolling down the familiar gravel path and out beneath the street lights of an empty street, busy by day, I felt both heightened and invisible. The quick and the dark had tuned my inner coyote, perking my ears and quickening my step through the night. All the while the blanketing dark had soothed and culled my hustling monkey-mind into a quiet remission. Death, maybe, is like this, and certainly the quiet of coming sleep– the comfort of surrender into that which we can’t control. Surfing the chaos, the tumbling silence, and the blanketing dark.
The following morning, I woke again to the rolling wheel of normalcy, to the sound of the dishwasher and my med school to-do list. It can’t be neglected, unfortunately. Life can’t be all mind-empty running; the body needs to eat too. The future needs tending to. Nevertheless I set aside some afternoon time to drive into the gorge to investigate a trail that I’d come across while procrastinating at the computer.
Eagle Creek sneaks surreptitiously into the Columbia River from a crack in the foliage along I-84. At it’s head is a small fishery center, a forest service office, and a surprisingly large parking lot. From it’s exit into the Columbia, it is anything but grand. Still, get out of your car there and you will smell that unmistakable smell- the wet-fresh air of the Pacific rainforest, cleaned for a thousand years by cedars and moss for your to breathe cleanly.
I’d heard tell that the trail up Eagle Creek was beautiful, hewn into the steep basalt walls of the gorge and split by waterfalls. It looked adventuresome on the internet, with pictures of trails lined with a cable handrail along the cliff. It’s the sort of trail to distract a man’s mind when he has important things to do.
When I arrived, it was pouring rain: Big, fat drops– not the piddling mist we’re used to around here. I hadn’t brought even my houdini, and as I set off padding up the trail I wondered if I wasn’t getting myself into some type-two fun. Then, rounding a corner out of the trees, I let a smile creep onto my face as the trail assumed the character that I was hoping for, narrowly snaking along a precipitous drop.
Even as the front of my shirt became soaked and stuck to me with the cold water of slapping ferns, I fell into the experience of the track. I stopped often to peer over the edge or around the corner at a waterfall. It led me through streams, or over them on fallen logs. The ground was rough with edgy basalt stone, gravel and clay. My legs felt light, my soaking shoes like paws padding up the studded trail.
This trail is popular in the summer, for obvious reasons, but on a rainy, spring, weekday afternoon, I passed only a few soggy looking hikers. They looked uncomfortable, but likewise gleeful about their surroundings. They seemed surprised to see me dodge past, soaked and barely clothed for the rain, but all smiled or waved, offering kind words.
It was six miles up to my turn around point at Tunnel Falls. The trail holds a fairly steady grade, gaining a thousand feet or so but never feeling steep. Twice it crossed the river on a bouncing wooden bridge, once over wide and flat water, and again over a deep and rushing gorge. As the trail wound through the open and across slopes of mossy scree I would dry out somewhat, the rain slackening, before once again plunging into the wetting brush and getting soaked by the sodden foliage.
Near my day’s apex, I finally came to a section of trail called “the potholes” where the trail’s builders has blasted the trail through a wall of columnar basalt. This section, which heralds the approach of Tunnel Falls, makes for funny running. To the right is an angry drop, while underfoot broken columns two feet across either bow upwards in slippery domes or bowl downwards into water-filled bowls.
Tip-toeing past, a small roar started to build. Turning a corner and jumping over a stump, I looked up and let out a small whoop as Tunnel Falls came into view. Here, a sizable cascade falls from the flat rimrock above in a straight column, whipping down a mossy wall. The trail is cut behind and into the rock. Running into the tunnel, the plip-plops of my footsteps through water echoed off the walls before I emerged immediately behind the falls in a roaring jet-engine.
Here I lingered for a few minutes, eating the only food that I’d brought with me– a delectable packet of maple almond butter. I savored the proximity to the roaring and effortless power of the falls. Above, the clouds began to break, and a small peak of blue crept through. I felt warm for the first time since leaving the trailhead. I turned back to return the way that’d I’d come.
Just as I turned the corner away from the falls, a few familiar faces from college walked around the corner. I stopped to say hello and briefly broke my abstinence to swig from a growler of beer that they’d brilliantly thought to bring along. With a few quick words, I left them to the solitude of the falls and set off back down the trail.
Never has a stretch of dirt so beckoned and drawn me down it. The gradual grade that I had climbed now pulled me back down and fed me an effortless speed. With a sense of recklessness, I cut loose through the wet rocks, the potholes, and the roots. The further that I ran, the more the sun began to creep outwards through the clouds, occasionally catching the far hillsides of old moss and tufted grass which glowed golden in it’s passing light.
Bounding across the upper bridge, I stuck my hands out to feel the air moving through my hands. I let my tongue hang from my mouth in a dog-like expression of satisfaction. I smiled and let out a laugh as I splashed down through the puddles, each turn and landmark coming sooner than I thought possible. Feeling that the experience would soon end, I again allowed myself to disappear into the whipping trail with no mind for it’s end or tomorrow’s trivialities.
At each turn through the lower gorge, the clouds swirled through a true fantasy world. The dark of the rainforest would give way to the brief light and air of an exposed cliffside, a brief piece of sunshine, or a vista down towards the Columbia. I could feel what Killian had talked about– the connection with where you are that feeds such lightness and energy into my feet, the effortless joy propelling me with great ease despite the growing miles.
It was not with sadness that I reached my car, but with a comfortable satisfaction. All was well. A down jacket warmed me as I stretched on my tailgate. Some hikers that I’d passed earlier waved as they walked to their car.
Someday, I think, I will stop thinking, and my body will lose it shape in the dirt. Then, you can “look for me in the weather report”, in the trail through the rainforest. But until that time, I will endlessly look after this feeling. If you can get out of the way, and make room, life, it seems, will happen to you beautifully.
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