Sunday, February 28, 2010

Yanayacu River Journal, Part IV - Before an Altar in Deep Worship

Lounging between hikes through the jungle in the hammock hanging from my bungalow’s back deck. More guests are here – the boat has just arrived from its daily three-hour sprint from Iquitos. The Frenchman and his Peruvian friend left earlier, so for a while there were only three of us. Arriving here is like arriving in paradise, although you don’t recognize it immediately. The speedboats are cramped, and when I arrived my left arm was burning from the sun. I craved a cigarette, needed a stretch, and as the boat tied up to the dock and I stepped out into the slow humid heat, heavy with a thick, vegetative smell, the lodge looked like a cheap Disney facsimile designed to impress more than to provide an authentic experience. But that was post-Iquitos, and I was in no mood for anything resembling that frontier town. Thankfully, Muyuna is an oasis in a living desert – how much more remote can you get than a several-hour boat ride from a city that can only be reached by traveling thousands of miles by air or river? So to the new arrivals – welcome. There are things here that can kill you and things here that can drive you mad. And there is great beauty as well.

This morning’s hike was just Hulber and I. I overslept – last night I felt like I was moving on the sea when I laid down, but the cacophonous selva put me right to sleep and I rolled over again when my alarm went off. At the breakfast bell (a loud ringing cowbell), I leapt up, dressed, brushed my teeth, and ran to the main hall and downed a cup of instant coffee with a cigarette. I was in rubber boots by 9, and Hulber led off into the jungle behind the lodge along a series of trails, showing me various plants and animals and sharing ethnobotanical knowledge along the way.

I said that the lodge is paradisiacal – if so, the jungle behind it is hell, slick with deep mud and decaying vegetation, and tangled and overgrown. We need machetes to cut through the vines and limbs that grow far more rapidly than the rate the annual floods obliterate the trail. Giant bees and wasps skirt through down-hanging vines like annoyed bombers, mosquitoes buzz and whine constantly; and ants – fire, army, bullet, leaf-cutter – crawl and haunt the leaf litter, the leaves, the branches, the trees. Hulber has been bitten twice by bullet ants – 24 hours of the most intense pain possible in the insect kingdom, with blistering fever, delirium, nausea, diarrhea – and only then do the effects lessen. We found them in two places – a nest in the roots of a tree, and a few on the end of a vine that Hulber cleared with his machete before I swung around like Tarzan.

It isn’t hard to find ants in the jungle. Streams of army ants, blind and following each other single-file, cross the trail and forest floor. A specific species of tree has developed a symbiotic relationship with a species of ant; the tree branches are covered in ants, which prevent epiphytes and bromeliads from growing on the tree, and the tree has thorns to deter predators from eating the ants. The path skirted a colony of leaf-cutter ants: a pile of dirt more than twenty feet by twenty feet, devoid of vegetation. Hundreds of soldiers carried pieces of leaf like tiny battleships with green sails unfurled. In the jungle, watch where you step, where you put your hand, and where you sit down.

Throughout the hike, Hulber pointed out termite nests in trees, massive bulbous growths that resemble dark brown tumors at the intersections of branches and trunks. One of them was low enough to study. With his machete, Hulber scraped open the papery surface and as termites appeared like ghostly ants, he told me to put my hand on the nest.

I declined, the first time I’d declined to do anything since arriving in the jungle.

Hulber told me again, and I thought, “He wouldn’t tell me to do it if it were dangerous or painful. I can do this.” Nervously, I placed my palm against the nest, and tiny whitish termites crawled all over my hand. Hulber started to tell me that natives burn termite nests to ward away mosquitoes, and burning termite nests seemed like a really good idea to me just then, with my hand covered in them. It tickled more than anything else, and I acted immediately as soon as Hulber told me to rub my hands together rapidly and smell them. Turpentine – termites contain a chemical that smells like turpentine, and is a natural mosquito repellent.

Lesson learned, again. Experience is the best teacher; trust yourself and others. The worst that could happen is you end up with smelly termite guts coating your hand.

We continued on, our boots sticking in the mud and decaying leaves, my feet and calves sticking to the inside of the boots, my shirt sticking to my shoulders under the straps of my pack. My forehead held a line of sweat under my hat. My skin itched with sweat, with insect repellent, with the crushed termites and tickling mosquitoes. We hacked at vines and long whip-thin branches, stumbled over roots and ducked under twisting aerial cords of vine, passed through beams of yellow-green sunlight and through wide shadows falling from the immense trunks of ceiba and maquira trees.

Pausing at a massive maquira, Hulber spoke about the forest. For years, loggers have illegally cut the largest Amazonian trees, and lodges, like Muyuna, have worked to save the jungle around them. In front of a tree 14ft in diameter at head-level, I posed for a photograph. There are no trees this wide in Oregon; there have not been for years, maybe never. The trunk is huge, dark brown and black, covered in strangler fig roots more than foot wide, and splayed out into mild buttresses at the base. Something animalistic happens in my mind when I see trees this big here – my rational mind knows that the living tree is just a thin layer under the bark, and the leaves high overhead, but the sheer bulk, the weight of the tree, impresses on me and I can’t think clear thoughts, as if I’m standing before an altar in deep worship. And maybe I am.

Leaving the shadow of that tree we walked back towards the lodge and lunch. Bright heliconia hung from the forest, which became an abstract tapestry of greens and browns in the growing heat. The thorned pyramidal roots of a walking palm occupied my attention for a while; the straight roots are exposed to a height of several feet, tapering towards a straight trunk. Legend has it that the palm moves up to four feet across the jungle floor each year, as roots die on one side and grow on the opposite. And lore has it that the Oje, another of the Amazon’s large trees, is the source of a milky, alkaline sap, discovered by shamans, that treats gastrointestinal parasites found untreatable by modern science. As Hulber showed me a tiny white-stripped toad, barely the size of a fingernail and almost invisible in the leaf-litter, I decided to believe the stories instead of dismissing them. What are one or two small rebellions against rational doubt when faced with facts as small as a toad, as thick as a tree, and as thickly tangled as the coiled and knotted vines and creepers stringing the jungle together?

After all, it was still morning, and I was deep in the Amazon jungle: above, a pygmy marmoset, one of the smallest monkeys in the world, scurried around its tree unburdened by our presence below, while macaws flew overhead, their cries echoing down through the canopy like falling feathers.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Wind Mountain, February 7th, 2010

Superbowl? May the best team win. I went hiking instead, and I think that Wind Mountain, the sun and clouds, and native vision-quest pits were the real winners on Sunday.

The Gorge was overcast in the morning as I drive past Multnomah Falls, but the clouds began to tatter as I arrived at Wind Mountain. In the parking lot, I met another hiker named Kevin (Kenneth? I don’t remember) who had driven around the mountain looking for the hidden trail – from the parking lot, the trail starts a ways down the gravel road, but it isn’t very visible from a moving car. We set off together behind a man and his two young grandkids.

I'd been looking for solitude, but hiking with Kevin was pleasant enough. Wind Mountain is a steep trail, and our conversation forced me to concentrate on my breathing, and our pace gave me something to test myself against. I weigh about 10-15lbs more than I should, and it isn’t muscle weight. I also haven’t been hiking regularly over the last two months of eating and drinking, so the trail became a workout, and about three quarters of the way up I stopped and gave Kevin the lead so that I could catch my breath and finish the climb alone.

Penny Postcard: Submerged Forest in the Wind Mountain, Washington, ca.1920. Card #321, Published by Chas. S. Lipschuetz Company, Portland, OR. Private collection of Lyn Topinka.

Though Wind Mountain is 1907ft tall, the unofficial trail starts halfway up on the north side, so that the climb is only 1,170ft. Wind Mountain, and its Oregon partner, Shellrock Mountain, are volcanic intrusions that erupted through the Columbia basalts a few million years ago. Wind Mountain stands alone, an isolated cone towering over the small town of Home Valley. At the top is one of the Gorge’s more important archeological sites, a collection of native vision-quest pits in the steep talus slopes covering the summit. Native American men once climbed the mountain and spent the night alone as a coming-of-age rite. To facilitate visions, they forced themselves to stay awake all night in a state of heightened awareness, and built rock walls and pits that are still present today. Once a spirit or guardian appeared, it remained with that person for life. A sign at the summit warns hikers: “This archeological site is extremely fragile. Just walking over it will damage important cultural features. Therefore, the USDA Forest Service has closed the site to hikers. All visitors must stay on the trail or within designated areas shown on the map.”

The 1940 book "Oregon, End of the Trail,” by the Works Projects Administration (WPA) of Oregon, describes a native legend: “The Indians believed that the Great Spirit set the whirlwinds blowing in constant fury about Wind Mountain as a punishment to those who, breaking the taboo, had taught the white men how to snare salmon. ..."

There’s certainly no escaping the wind on Wind Mountain. I reached the top and quickly cooled down in the cold breeze swirling around the summit. I went right on the small loop trail and found Kevin at the top of the first viewpoint, looking over the smooth-as-glass Columbia as far west as Beacon Rock. A long train rumbled past on the Oregon side, and the sound drifted up almost 2000ft across the river and above Home Valley. Otherwise, silence, the wind in my ears, and a heartbeat returning to normal after a steep mile climb.

After a quick rest, Kevin and I walked to the eastern talus, where clouds swirled and filled the valley between Wind Mountain and 2,948ft Dog Mountain to the east. Vision-quest pits drifted in and out of the foggy talus, and the clouds lifted, and the sun shot down searching beams over the forest and far ridge. Across the river, Mt. Defiance was swathed in tattered cloud and snow and the dance of the sun.

I cracked open my celebratory beer, and sat down on a rock, enjoying the interplay between sun and cloud, river and mountain, the thin works of man clinging to the river’s shores while pine-clad slopes and rocky cliffs towered a mile above the highways and rail tracks. Against the distance, the traffic on the highway appeared to make no progress, and in front of me were four or five vision pits, updateable and who knows how old, that had withstood the elements on top of an old volcano, and that had harbored the coming of visions and the appearance of spirit guardians who lived lives equally as long as their ward’s.

Kevin left to start down the trail, and for the next hour I sat with the vision pits dappled with sunlight. I walked around over the talus, seeing the slope and the pits and the distant mountains change in the light. I felt as if my own vision had grown sharper – at one point, I thought of my friend who I’d left my itinerary with; my very next thought was that the talus was unstable and that I needed to be careful about loose rock that could shift and twist an ankle. Immediately after that thought, a rock shifted under my foot and I nimbly stepped away. I can’t put too much stock in prophecy, but it happened just like that, and I went back to meditating on the view.

When the clouds rose up again, I wandered around and investigated the patterns of lichen and moss on the rocks and twigs of a small vine maple. Like the vehicles on the highway far below, tiny worlds exist in shades of burnt orange, bright green, silvery gray - in the miniscule, strange and alien life-forms parliament together on twigs no thicker than a pencil, or on the shaded face of a rock. In a space barely a third of an inch across, life blooms in unusual forms, and I imagined it to be an alien city, or an Alice in Wonderland theme park missing the caterpillar (who is out back smoking a joint and taking photos of very small things).

I never looked at my watch, but driven by some inner chronometer, at some point I grabbed my pack, did a quick check for accidentally dropped garbage or gear, and headed back towards the first viewpoint, now dim through a veil of cloud. The upper half of the mountain remained wrapped in cloud as I descended, feeling the strain on my knees grow as I entered sunshine tumbling through the forest halfway down.

As is usual for me, the climb had been a physical exertion, with my focus more on myself then on my surroundings. On the descent, the forest captured my attention, with mossy trees standing over deep green coils of fern, sharp Oregon grape, and jumbled talus slopes. The sun burst through at odd times, and the forest responded with a symphony of browns and greens and darting yellows. I walked through a cathedral of firs, the trail my guide and the sun leading the way.

I cut off the main trail at a very steep spur-trail that lead down to an outcrop with great views east to Augsberger and Dog Mountain. The view was spectacular, but the cliffs treacherous and dizzying – no one would find you if you messed up and fell from here. In the distance, the Columbia ran blue and reflective, smooth as a mirror, and the sun flashed down on Frog Lake and the pointed crowns of hemlock and fir.

I reached my truck as more people arrived in the lot – a busy day at Wind Mountain. I put on music for the drive home, and as a few drops of rain fell from warm clouds over the river, sunlight scattered through the drops on the windshield, and the lyrics synced up with the twisting bends of the state highway, the freight train rumbling on down by the river, and the long interstate curving along the base of the Oregon Gorge, where progress is measured in spirit as much as it is in distance.