I steadied myself against a tree with my one good arm as I paused near the top of the rise to catch my breath. Every exhale expressed as a well-formed cloud; hoarfrost and alder leaves crunched underfoot. In the distance, the roar of a distant waterfall, and wind moving through the treetops. Sword ferns blanket the slope of every ridge, vine maple, too, and generous swaths of mist. Above the treetops, the mists cling to the high points and hillsides of every rise and fall of the canyon. Below me, the Salmon River, twisted in its path through the mountains, dropping across the ledges in great sheets, forming roaring cataracts in the distance.
I take one last sip of hot tea from my thermos, before stowing it and I find my footing again as I sling the weight of my pack forward, clip its mass into place against my chest, and trudge onward.
The hill seemed longer than I remembered this time, with the extra weight in my back and an arm, broken and casted, the bones knitting their way back together again, like magic. I thought I would remember every bend and turn of this trail but I did not. Each time, I was sure this was the last section before the overlook, only to come around the corner and see more trail weaving along the flank of the hillside. Keep going.
Finally, eventually, I reached the opening in the trees. It was time to set all these burdens down.
I dropped my pack in the middle of the trail. Thinking twice, after looking down the cliffs below me, I dragged my pack a few feet back and rested it against a rock at a safer distance away from the edge. Never underestimate the rolling trajectory of a well packed bundle falling a short distance. Once I felt my pack was safe, I sat upon it for good measure and removed the thermos from its pocket again. Sipping the tea slowly, I spent a long time staring down into the canyon, feeling a lightness in my body after removing a heavy weight, enjoying the inner warmth and earthy sweetness the tea provides.
Further up river, the canyon walls were decorated with ice that formed on the seeping, mossy cliff. Mists hung low, obscuring the tops of trees, clinging and rolling against the wind.
The sky was a grey flag hung with dark clouds and the wind was gusty, inconsistent. Up here on the open ridge it seemed to swirl around me, dancing, enchanting, softly touching me.
I drank the tea until it was gone, tipping my head back to drain the last of it. I stood briskly, flopped my pack on my shoulders, and moved up the trail a short way to choose a campsite among the trees.
The sites were empty, mercifully. I claimed the largest spot for myself, and set up as far back under the trees as I could. With some difficulty, I managed to get the tent up, despite the wind and having only one good arm.
I set up my bed carefully, then unpacked and laid each item out across the top of my quilted green bag. My first aid kit; a humble wad of bandaids, eye drops, ace bandage, two bleach tablets and an assortment of pain pills. A camp stove. 3 liters of water. A gallon ziplock of camping food- oatmeal, instant soup, a few snack bars. A lighter. A small pocket guide to mushrooms. A package of tea.
Once my tent was secure and all my belongings stored safely inside, I set off into the forested slopes, to collect a bit of dry wood for a fire. An old tree had fallen in a recent storm and there were good, dry pieces buried in the wreckage.
I came back to camp with an armful, and set to work on the fire at once, as daylight was set to soon drain from the sky. Rearranging the rocks that lined the fire pit, and clearing debris from the center, I built a little pyramid of sticks and placed the starter inside. As I lit the dry material, it began to smolder. I blew into it, cupping my hands around the tiny flames, trying to block the wind with my body, protecting it carefully as it grew. As the fire moved from the starter material into the wood I had collected, I continued to guard this precious tiny fire, feeding the smallest pieces in its mouth, watching it grow.
I was just starting to lay some larger pieces of wood down in the flames when the fire raindrops started to fall, fat and emphatic in a scattering all around me. The late afternoon sun was a distant orb behind the clouds and fog. Wind picked up and roared through the trees, a low moaning. I stoked the fire some more, pulled my hood tight around my face, and set water to boil for tea.
While the water heated in its little pot, I wandered out to the edge of the opening and gazed into the depths of the canyon upriver. Clouds were now flying past, the mists had loaded up against the canyon walls and gusts of wind loaded with rain burst forth again and again, lashing across my back, howling out of the depth of the deeply carved mountain river valleys with a force that reminded me of waves crashing against the dark basalt headlands of the Oregon coast where I was born.
The wind was cold, full of damp. I stood there on the edge of the clearing, feeling it’s power for a moment. Letting the wind touch my face. I felt held in its embrace, I felt alive in its presence. How do you know you are alive? How do you know you’re really here, that this isn’t a dream?
You know by the feeling of wind and water opposing you forcefully, like waves against a cliff; running headlong against the immovable rise of the land, again and again.
You know by the warmth cast from a fire you build with your own two hands, cradled and gently nourished, until it grows into a thing capable of enacting great change on the landscape.
You know by the feeling of the earth under your feet. Always steady, always still.
The water comes to a boil and I turn off the gas. I lower a new bag of tea into the opening of the thermos, and balance carefully, trying not to spill. Boiling water is one of the most dangerous things we handle regularly in the backcountry. An accidental spill can leave a burn on the hands or feet that causes great discomfort and can potentially complicate your exit from the forest or impede the tasks you need to complete to properly care for yourself. I take the job seriously and secure the lid when I am done.
My fire crackles away in the wind and I return to its side to watch it glow as the sky grows darker. Low rumbles of thunder from the distant mountain come in on the wind, trees squeak and groan as they rub together, yielding to the force of each gust. In between sips of tea, I stare into the coals. They shimmer violet, red, orange, gold; they flicker and sway. Waves of color and heat, sparks popping and ejecting into the growing dark, smoke rolling and fawning into the night.
I gaze down at the tops of my shoes, wet and dark, slightly steaming in the heat of the fire. The cast of my broken arm is slightly damp, and I pull it deeper inside my jacket to protect it from the rain. The bones ached from deep within sometimes. I stare into the growing darkness, down in the depths of the canyon, through the rain still falling fat and loud against the earth, already slimy and battered by the past few weeks of rain. Something about places I cannot visit and will never know calls to me. It’s so dark down there. I hear the falls roaring over the sound of the wind, cutting through the night, a low groan coming up from the deep. Clouds move across the sky, momentarily revealing a glowing place on the horizon, illuminated by the moon. I look up, into the wind, to see it, and the wind brushes my hair from my eyes, touches my face. Clouds shift again, the sky returns to darkness and the moment passes.
I feel a feeling called ‘home’ wash over me, just then.