Thursday, January 29, 2009

Lookout Mountain and the Snap of the Twig

Lookout Mountain scares me and I’ll probably never go back there alone. It is a hike straight from the fogs of myth and though I laugh about it now, it’s the winner as far as hikes spent freaking out go.

I’d read great things about Lookout Mountain, a 6,500ft high-point towering above a valley on the east side of Mt. Hood. There's a short, easy option, but I wanted something more intense, and went for the longer trail coming from the east. Nice tough climb, not too long, excellent views of the mountain and into the eastern deserts, with open meadows filled with flowers, and an old lookout tower foundation at the summit.

It’s scary, man.

Last August, I parked at the trailhead, stretched, and made it less than a quarter mile before I stopped to catch my breath on the steep beginning section of the hike. The truck was out of sight, and as I stood there getting my breathing under control, I heard a loud crashing noise below me – as in, below me between me and the truck.

This actually freaked me out enough that I considered turning back and driving home. I can’t explain how bad it was. It was just weird. But some sort of logic won out and I continued up the hill, glancing behind me numerous times. Eventually the trail leveled out a bit, following a stream through a gorgeous section of forest filled with dappled sunlight and an understory resplendent with little white flowers.

Except I felt someone was watching me.

I thought that at any moment, some previously benign shape would turn from a stump or rock or shadow into a bear or a Bigfoot or something even stranger and definitely more dangerous. And I made tracks, I mean I hoofed it; I practically jogged to the next section of trail that climbed up the side of a ridge and left the creek behind.

Sometime later I reached a small lake, and stopped to eat a snack and rest. The heat was pretty tough, in the upper eighties, I’d guess, and under the trees there was no air movement. The lake was pretty, though, and I ate part of a turkey wrap and some cashews. Then I heard something behind me. The trail ran above me as it passed the lake, and I assumed I’d turn around to see other hikers. But no one was there.

Nothing was there at all.

I packed up and hurriedly left, climbed the big slope to the top of the ridge and came out of the forest into a path leading through clumps of trees interspersed with flowering meadows. The heat and the grade were tough, but a wind chilled the sweat and the landscape was beautiful. My breathing took on a regular rhythm, my heartbeat steadied itself, and even the wind in my ears grew pleasant, at least until...

all those deer bounded away and the sound of their hoofs and the crashing of branches made my senses explode into a hemorrhaging fountain of fear!

Okay, that’s a bit sensationalistic, but damn, I never even saw the things and they scared the crap out of me. You should warn a hiker, deer! Come on!

So, startled out of his reverie, the intrepid hiker-wilderness-guide summits the fearsome mountain and on his final ascent, spies two other hikers at the top who have clearly come up from the shorter, half-as-difficult trail on the other side. They’re gone when he summits, sets down his pack, opens a beer and looks for a place to sit and enjoy the magnificent view of Mt. Hood rising over the ridges and valleys and forests and stands of sun-bleached whitebark pine and the growing sense that he’s not alone.

Maybe I was just tired out from the climb and the heat. Maybe I was just weirded out. But I had the sense, almost from the moment I got to the summit area, that I wasn’t alone. I stayed there for maybe twenty minutes, but I never sat down. I wanted to be able to turn around easily. The hikers I’d spotted earlier were nowhere to be seen. There was no sound of movement. It was silent except for the wind. And down-slope, in the trees, I sensed something foreign and alien to my understanding and I didn’t like it, and soon I left.

There’s a spring down in that direction that I’d wanted to explore, but I took off down the trail instead. Somehow the entire time I thought I’d run into something I didn’t want to see. Back down on the forested slope above the lake, I started to relax, and just then Mother Nature pulled a fast one on me as a huge shadow obliterated the sun and swept terror down in my heart like the falling of night in a poorly written horror movie.

Well, maybe not that bad. The shadow belonged to a medium sized bird that perched benevolently in the tree above me. Strange how some small creature can appear at first glance monstrous and huge, the very emblem of death’s forced march.

I swear by this time the mountain should’ve scared the metaphors right out of me, along with the contents of my bowels and the rapidly deteriorating webs of my sanity. But I wasn’t going out like that, and I trotted down the trail, through the oxalis blooming along the creek, until I got back to the steep section where I’d heard that first crashing sound. I anticipated hearing it again, only this time hearing it as well as finally encountering whatever it was that made that noise.

Of course I didn’t hear it. I bolted down the hill and suddenly came out on the gravel road and my truck, still parked alone at the trailhead. It didn’t take much time before I was on my way down the road and then I came around a corner and it was there.

I saw it cross the road and disappear into the trees.

I pulled up and stopped and it was nowhere in sight. The forest was quiet. The afternoon sun cast short shadows on the forest floor. Nothing moved. Everything was brown and gray or dark green. And the coyote was gone.

Trickster, hero of native myth, coyote. That son of a… Now I know what stalked me up and down that trail. Coyote was waiting at every bend. Every snap of twig or rustle of leaves, every quickened heartbeat or rush of blood, every hair standing on end, every shudder of panic or fear – the trickster was there. Every time I doubted, every time I stopped for breath, every time I turned an eye to the wilderness around me, Coyote was there, testing me.

In myth Coyote is clever and ambiguous, the creator and the destroyer, the manifestation of primitive nature and passion and desire, the creature who outwits and fools all the other creatures but who in the end only outwits and fools himself. And laughter, Coyote is known for his ability to laugh at himself, and at others. And as I drove down that forest road, with my music turned up and the trail behind me, as I headed home after miles of tense and nervous hiking, I laughed and wondered just how much Coyote had been following me that day, and just how much I’d been following Coyote.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

2666, by Roberto Bolano

"For an 800-page, translated novel in five sections, 2666 is an unbelievable pleasure to read. Tightly written, filled with insight and wonder, and with liquid prose as beautiful and terrifying as a dream, 2666 kept me occupied for many a sleepless night. BolaƱo fictionalizes the real-life disappearances of hundreds of young women in a Mexican border town, populating his novel with a range of finely nuanced, deeply imagined characters, and capturing the totality of human experience in all its hideousness and beauty, intricacies and truth. In style, range of thought, and execution, 2666 is utterly visionary, and completely unforgettable."

I was given 100 words for that review, which didn't allow me to add that 2666 is one of those rare novels, like War and Peace, like Zorba the Greek, that works because it is so huge, so sprawling, so ambitious, and so risky that it captures the reader's imagination and enthralls with singularity of vision. If artists didn't attempt novels like this - and it has its flaws - all of literature would suffer, and readers would be left with poor imitations, or else nothing at all. Bolano has received more than his fair share of praise - he's currently literature's darling - but he deserves to be read precisely because his work is as messy as life, and when you read 2666, the two become interchangeable. Simply brilliant.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Books I've Been Reading

To Siberia
Per Petterson

Petterson's Danish seascape is gorgeous, the lives of his characters are meticulously rendered, and his tracing of their lives is perfect. Guaranteed to take your breath away, To Siberia quietly tells the story of a lovely and innocent childhood opening like a flower in a storm.

And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks
Jack Kerouac & William Burroughs

The legendary "lost book" of the Beats, this early collaborative novel reveals two of the Beat's finest writers at the beginning of their careers. Some of these chapters are brilliant short stories in and of themselves. An illuminating and enjoyable read.

The English Major
Jim Harrison

You don't have to be young to start over, hip to seize life, or daring to have adventure. You don't need to be moneyed (or utterly destitute) to meet the right people; a simple life is fuel enough for insight and meaning; and change is often good. Jim Harrison's writing is marvelous, and in his new novel - "On the Road" for the common man - he takes the reader on a trip with a teacher-turned-farmer when he hits the highways after personal catastrophe.

Bretz's Flood
John Soennichsen

The massive Missoula floods carved the dramatic scablands of eastern Washington and flooded the Columbia and Willamette valleys to depths of 400 feet as far south as Eugene. This is the bracing story of the geologist who, like Galileo and Darwin before him, challenged prevailing thought and put forth a theory that incited academic controversy for years.