Sunday, September 19, 2010

Hiking Patterson Ridge

It is about 3 miles into my hike when the rain stops. Moving through the open chaparral interspersed with juniper and pine trees is heavenly, the air perfumed with the sweet scent of sage. There are 28 miles of trails that make up the Patterson Ridge /Sisters trail system and I am only planning on tackling about 8 of those miles. My goal is a place on the map called Spirit Circle Viewpoint. How can I resist?
Hiking alone in any wilderness is something I love to do – and I do it with a healthy respect for my safety. I am in Oregon and less familiar with the critters that inhabit these woods and my thoughts keep coming back to bears and big cats. It doesn't help that I keep finding bones along the trail. A mandible here, a femur there – clean and stark against the gray pumice trail. I also think about what I am reading right now – about the journeys that we make into spirit and how fretful and vulnerable we can feel. As I continue to put one foot before the other, taking myself further away from civilization, I begin to wonder about the metaphor that is buried in what I am doing. Moving out of the known and into the unknown. Projecting my fears onto wildlife that I have not seen is easy even as I wonder what "lurks" in my own psyche.
This is why I like hiking alone. I end up pushing myself through the challenge of facing my fears. I keep going until I begin to feel myself surrendering to the wild world around me, becoming a part of it instead of an intruder.
As the sky lightens, I pull the hood of my raincoat off and can hear once again the silence of the wilderness around me instead of the rustle of plastic protecting my head from what has just been a steady downpour. I hear a sound then – an odd sound – and stop to listen more fully. Voices rise and fall, echoing across the still landscape. At first I think: kids yelling and listening for their echoes. There is that resonating quality – far but not too far away, echoing up what I realize is a valley to the east of my position. No. Wait. Not kids. Coyotes.
Howling, yipping with that soulful quality that fills the silence. I know this sound. Usually I am in the safety of my bedroom, listening from my window. Not miles from the closest town, alone on a trail. I feel alert and energized even as I consider turning back. The howling is close but invisible behind the landscape of trees and brush. I feel the thrill of fear and this time it is different than the gnawing worries of a mile ago. Many howls, more than one. A pack. This isn't my imagination that I am listening to, no, it is the real thing.
And then I smile. Coyote – the trickster – is often associated with journeys into the mystery. The trickster is not just the causal agent of chaos and strife, he is also seen as the essence of 'shaking things up'; of straddling the paradoxes that are in life and act as go-betweens for what is spirit and what is earthly. I had just been reading about him this morning in Jean Shinoda Bolen's Crossing to Avalon. Besides, we are not strangers, this creature and I. The animal I know is not interested in lone human beings hiking – especially ones with hiking poles and big flapping jackets. And so I listen as I walk and I wonder why they are being so noisy this late in the morning. Until I hear a new voice rise from the valley and it wipes the smile from my face. It is the scream of another animal, long and agonized, that abruptly stops. A sheep, I will later surmise, when I spot a shaggy haired herd running through the trees. The coyotes are silent and I realize that I have been listening to a hunt. I have also heard the last terrified screams of an animal that is now feeding the pack of coyotes that ran it down.
This shakes me – this witnessing of survival and death. It also defies my efforts to continue the foray into the metaphoric world. I have nothing clever to tell myself beyond a sincere and deep appreciation for the breath that fills my lungs. For life. For survival. For not being a sheep.


  1. Read all of your blog and as always, am smiling at your way with words and ability to yourself, your journey, your self care and......OMG girl...get out of the scary wilderness where the animals are feasting and back into the safe bathtub with a glass if wine!!! ;)

  2. So I shouldn't tell you about the cougar prints I saw on the trail at Smith Rock... nice and fresh and big!