When I reached the summit of the meadow I had already decided I was out of time to complete the loop I’d been impulsively eyeing. The spring sunshine felt amazing on my skin, but I didn’t trust it to last long. Not ready to turn around, I instead wandered down into a grass meadow I could see through the trees. I ambled downward along the slope until I reached a treeless opening sprinkled with tiny yellow flowers, tall grasses, and in the center, I found myself a flatish rock to rest on.
I sat awhile, got stoned, and stared down into the velvety emerald valley that opened below. When I felt ready, I climbed back up to the crest of the ridge and wandered in the direction of the trail. Just as I was turning back, I saw something high on the hill behind me. A rock outcropping protruded from the tree line at the top.
I immediately changed my mind about returning the way I came and started hiking back toward the hill, curious about what else I might find up there.
My map showed no road, no trail leading where I wanted to go, so I got as close as I could and then started charging straight up the hillside. A tower of rounded pinnacles met me immediately and I suddenly found myself scrambling up a chute to gain the ridge.
See, I learned a long time ago that intimacy with a place comes from showing up without expectations, ready to listen. Be open to revelations. Watch for the offerings of the forest. Move quietly and respectfully, and you will see the animals. They always watch us, and when we behave like noisy, smelly, invaders, they do not let us come close.
Here is something else I have come to understand: all wild places are worth exploring. Every forest has its own magick, it’s own rhythms, frequencies, it’s own feelings. If you’ve come to a place that seems boring; look closer. There’s something you can’t see yet, just below the surface.
The danger with bucket listing is that it treats the trails like boxes to check off, the woods like a forested hallway to observe casually as you complete your “workout”. A highway among the firs and pines, the boulders and spires, the carpeted forest floor a simple decoration. All a beautiful background for your weekly miles, but you are missing the point.
You can step in to this living, breathing, dynamic, uncaring place and lay yourself bare to the experience it has to offer. You can also ignore it; avoiding all experiences that cannot be explained. Or photographed. Or bragged about.
Back on that hillside, I am climbing up, and up. The crest of this ridge is covered in beautiful basalt spires and rocky outcroppings, allowing full view down into the canyon below. I notice I am smiling to myself, because I know I’m getting into the work now. This is what I came here to see. Things that are not obvious from the surface.
I reach the peak of a minor ridge and admire the view while I plan out the rest of my route. A named peak with no trail to its summit is looming before me. I can connect to the old forest service roads coming off the east side of its summit, assuming terrain will allow it. It looks doable by map, and despite my best efforts at a visual, I can’t see much of a distance, so I’ll be navigating by GPS.
Learning to read the landscape took me a long time. I tried to learn navigation by memorizing a sequence of steps, but it always felt fussy, I always felt like I was guessing and checking, rather than moving with bold confidence through the woods. It was only once I had circled back around to understanding the relationship with place, that learning how to navigate fell open. Naturally, easily, now; I could see the shape of the land as I swept out before me and I could visualize it in my mind. As I came to know the spooky woods, I could always picture myself, as if from space, understanding exactly where I was on the flank of the mountain. Scaling out. Trying to imagine the space I occupy in both place and time as one sweeping plane, the vastness of reality overwhelming.
But I am new here. I am humble enough to respect what that means. It means I do not know the land well, I do not know each valley and creek yet. I don’t know where the land carves softly and where it cliffs out. I don’t know where the animals sleep and where they hide in the heat of the day. I know once I drop back down into the winding woods, it will be easy enough to lose my way. Today, I am here to learn.
I make the final summit and admire the views that spill out before me. I wonder how many miles I can see in each direction. I count the snowy mountains; Adams, Jefferson, Hood. I wonder why there is no trail to this summit. I used to see trail-less peaks on a map and assume there was nothing worth seeing up there. Now I know better. All wild places are worth exploring.