The first time is usually never the best time; cooking, sex or even a hike. Like a good meal, sex or even that hike that you just finished, there is always the introspective that happens and anticipation for the ‘next time’. Cooking or sex, hopefully, can come at a fairly frequent rate, or not, but sometimes a hike can take a great deal of time to repeat, especially if the trail isn’t local in nature. Real life, work, late snowpacks and unexpected wildfires can delay or completely derail a year’s hiking plans. In some years, it is all about touching bases, as I call it – that desire to make sure and visit all of your favorite, and comfortable, hikes that you gather in a lifetime – especially those with distinctive views or impressive wildflower blooms that you plan a hiking calendar around. And so, the second time around can take a year or two to happen.
Tam McArthur Rim is one of those hikes. Neither difficult, nor far flung in nature, but still I would stare longingly at it’s distinctive escarpment as I drove past on my way to Bend from Sisters, with other hikes, priorities, heavy snowpacks or unexpected wildfires always derailing my plans. I had heard stories of camping up on the rim during summer meteor showers from my neighbors back in Portland, only fueling my desire to visit.
The first time I hiked the trail I roamed, I stared at wildflowers, I examined the beautiful mixture of volcanics that made of the soil of this place, I lingered in sunshine and silence and took in the views around me. I did not make it up to The Hand – a basalt prominence that rises from a ridgeline extending from Broken Top – but was content with the days’ exploration. Of course, the next year a wildfire the week of my vacation derailed plans for another visit, such is the tricksy nature of the outdoors. No sex, or hiking Tam MacArthur that summer!
Ahh, but the second time, such anticipation, indeed. The end of a perfect week where my dear friend and hiking buddy Jason and I rambled the Ochocos, Painted Hills and Aldrich mountains; wildflowers, butterflies and bumblebees and gorgeous geologic vistas, plus a breathtaking evening of shootings stars in dense darkness and starshine, with cognac and whiskey, bats and surrounding sounds of nature, in the true middle of nowhere. We had to part ways, but I was so immersed and energized by nature that I had to try and get one more hike in before leaving Central Oregon behind.
The summer of the swollen knee, but that was not going to stop me. The siren song of Tam McArthur was calling, the weather perfect, no fires or snows to stop me. Plus, and this is very important, on my first hike to Tam I came across two (only) Indian Paintbrush that were so psychedelic in coloration that one of the images remained as my desktop photos for weeks on end. Every time I saw this plant I yearned to see them again. A subspecies or unique coloration due to soil composition or simply oddball genetics? I wanted more, and this time I determined I would hike to The Hand, as well!!!
The hike was lovely; sunny and warm, the trail winding through forests and then open volcanic meadows. Trees stunted and windblown at 7000’. Wildflowers buried under feet of snow for 9 months of the year, only to arise from nutrient poor soils to bloom, mostly low to the ground, as winds and hot summer sun try and rob them of precious moisture once the snows have gone away. How can one not stop and admire, stop and take photos, for christ sakes at least stop and say, hello!
I found plenty more of the gorgeous paintbrush this time in one lone meadow, mostly coming up from under brightly colored scattered volcanic stones. So many more in bloom this time around. Tip-toeing from rock to rock so as to not disturb the delicate soils and their flowers while taking as many photos as necessary – a lot. Happiness in the delicate beauty of this harsh environment.
I am sure many a mountain climber, or high alpine hiker, can tell you, ridge lines are a deceptive lot, filled with false summits and false promises. Each rise a liar. The red cindery ridge end that leads up to The Hand is the beginning of that lie, filled with beauty, views of tiny tarns of snowmelt and the beginnings of epic Cascadian views.
Up, up, up, and then down. The user trail fading, climbing over piles of basalty blocks where the trail stops, winding around and down, and then back up, again. Trekking poles helping my balky knee onward. Late afternoon shadows. Up a snow chute around a snowmelt stream and up a snowfield. Up being the word here. This is not a technical hike, nor necessarily a difficult hike -though some have written differently – but enough up and downs that the end is never really in sight until, well, the end.
Shake hands with The Hand. There is actually not a lot of room to sit and stretch out as The Hand is a vast prow of basalt at around 8100’ thrusting out of the ridgeline. A steep snowfield on the north side, loose red scree and cinder underneath. Slip and see you about about 500’ later. A tiny rock on the scree slope provides a chair for sitting and savoring the views.
Only a few ground hugging flowers on this rocky ridge, but almost immediately a hummingbird comes to nectar after I settle. Awesome. Magic. Circle of life. Everything is perfect. A pair of grey falcons circle overhead, riding summer thermals higher and higher before gliding off. Ponds, glacial moraines, patches of lingering summer snowpack, the landscape stark red cinders and grey basalts, alpine forests below with patches where wildfire have left ranks of ghostly silver trunks standing. Silence. Ancient volcanics march dutifully northwards to the horizon. At this altitude we are looking more eye to eye. Don’t look down on me anymore just because your a few million years older.
I love to linger. I am a very good lingerer when I am outdoors. I am best used as a sponge. I excel at absorbing my surroundings. I tire not at looking at the topography and geology around me. I can do it for hours; imagining the geologic processes that formed what I can see, what the years of weather and weathering have changed. How pockets of wind sheltered soil form the beginnings of a micro meadow of flowers. The brave white pine seeding, maybe two summers old, growing out of the cindery soil. The other tiny pines that did not make it. Harsh. A delicate balance. What subtle forces of snow and rain and wind and sun, and chance where a seed falls, or is buried by a bird, that allows the root system to develop enough to grow season after season. I can sit and watch and see the stories of success and failure and marvel at them all.
The Hand is another place where natural stories can unfold in their own time. The majority of humanity will never see or know of these stories. Many that visit this spot will not stop long enough to turn the first few pages. They may only see the cover – which is not to say that the cover, Broken Top in its jagged multi-hued glory, Middle and North Sisters, dominating the skyline in epic volcanic majesty, are not awe inspiring and worthy of full attention – but to never to look down and see a hummingbird, the seedling or the paintbrush, and revel at the stubborn beauty of the world around us.
Sun westering as I leave far too quickly for my liking. Even long summer days come to an end. Long shadows lean and grow at sunset as I head down the trail back to car and home. Still looking left and right and up and down at dead snags, patches of flowers illuminated in deepening red hues, I stubbornly leave my alpine high, but so many wonderful memories linger, post-coital, like a good meal, like…