Summer’s Solstice

Summer solstice 2014. I awake early and get some pre-sunrise Venus, and waning moon, photos above the lightening and brightening eastern horizon of summer! A few high clouds add a splash of color as dawn grows near. I can see one tall, lone pine, in the distance that the sun will rise just south of, a solstice marker, as it were, for the longest day has arrived!

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I have been madly gardening and rebuilding my yard this spring. Not the exciting tales of hiking and the outdoors, to be sure, but the more mundane, yet satisfying, hauling away old sod, and replanting the yard with more bee and butterfly friendly plants and flowers. This project has taken up much of my hiking time this spring. In fact, I celebrate some of this solstice day hauling a load of old sod to the dump. Festive, to be sure!

The plan, as much as there is one, is to take much food and clothing to Horse Ridge, hike near the top, and watch the sun set and enjoy the long twilight of the longest day. Plans are good…sometimes they even happen like they are supposed to. In this case, as I clean and vacuum dead grass and dirt, post-dump, from the car, and begin loading my hiking gear, a cunning flaw in my plan is revealed as the warm clothing I was going to take on this hike is carefully set aside while cleaning, and is forgotten, something I will humorously discover at the Horse Ridge trailhead. For now, the packing goes on, blissfully unaware, and I leave much later in the afternoon than I had planned, and yet, this IS the longest day of the year.

I love the drive east of Bend. There is absolutely nothing special about it, but there is always very little traffic, and open spaces around me, so I can crank up the stereo and enjoy the festival of basalt and juniper as I make good headway for the Badlands Wilderness and Horse Ridge. Along the way I secretly wish I had the time and energy to hike to both the Badlands shrine and the Horse Ridge shrine, but getter older, and spending a lot of time on my legs reworking the yard means that is simply not going to happen today. So, there is that twinge of regret as I drive by the Badlands sign and head down the hill for Horse Ridge.

I arrive at the Horse Ridge trailhead, and I am actually shocked to see another car here today. I gear up (remember the earlier foreshadowing?), and I am unpleasantly surprised that none of my warm clothes are around. Now, it is a warm day outside, but the north wind that is blowing is riding up Horse Ridge and at sunset a tank top and a wind breaker are not going to cut it into the night. And so it seems that I will be heading back to the Badlands, after all!

Desert Daisies

There are only a couple of cars at the Badlands trailhead, and so I grab my gear and head for the shrine. I am pleasantly shocked and surprised by the amount of wildflowers in bloom. I harken back to my first visits to the Badlands last August when deathly heat and broiling sands were the main features to be seen. Today is another matter altogether. Buckwheat, daisies, lavender colored flax and red dwarf monkeyflowers blanket the sandy ground, and grow from rocky basalty perches, as well.

Buckwheat, flax and sage

The truth of the matter is that there are areas so dense with wildflowers that I have to circle around on my wander to make headway towards the shrine. The trek is slow as I stop in amazement to soak up the spectacular beauty around me, and to capture photos of the many little flowers putting on their best face during this first day of summer.

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In typical fashion, as I slowly make my way cross-country, I swing too far to one side and after a while I realize that, once again, I am not anywhere near the shrine. Somehow, I have an approximate sense of bearing, change directions and after a few moments something vaguely familiar appears that leads to another spot, and suddenly, I once again know where I am. Several turns later the shrine rise appears and I am home for the solstice. Always with the pseudo-drama…

This is an odd summer solstice for me. Historically, and for many years, I have celebrated the summer solstice at Catherine Creek, in the Columbia River Gorge, with good friends, at the same grassy knoll. This year, having moved to Bend, the old familiar stomping grounds are far away, as are my hiking companions.

Supposedly, like any other holiday, they are best spent with friends or family. I feel the same way about the equinox and solstice. They have been days of great fun and camaraderie, spending time with friends who share the same deep admiration and appreciation for the simple pleasures of the outdoors. For today, at least, there is an empty place in my heart, and the normally welcomed silence is devoid of laughter and story.

However, the afternoon is anything but silent. A variety of different bird life are busy discussing their summer plans in the junipers around me. Busily flitting from tree to tree, excitement fills the air, and one cannot help but be uplifted by their myriad of song and ceaseless chatter. Even an old friend, a bird I have not yet identified, that for many years baffled us at Catherine Creek, makes an unexpected appearance, and it’s call fills me with nostalgia as it circles around my location squawking.

Snag embodied by the Green Man

Sunlight drifts slowly. The shrine snag reaches towards the westering sun, the heartwood taking on a mask of agelessness, the Green Man, personified. I sit and turn, enjoying the ever changing summer light. I continually brush against sage that fills the warm evening air with its’ soothing scent, olfactory joy. Grasses and sage ripple in the wind – whispers of the new season upon us. As Shakespeare might have written, all the world’s a sage.

Oregon Sunshine

More wandering to be had. A small rabbit is startled and runs past. I climb basalt pressure ridges, ringed layers of basalt cooled then uplifted. But even basalt does not present a problem for buckwheats blooming on top. Mounds of yellow Oregon sunshine brighten their surroundings. I head back to the car, turning frequently to watch the near setting sun stream though the juniper. The hills around me turn red.

Lava Rings

The roads are deserted, and so I drive slowly looking for the perfect spot to capture the orange horizon and silhouetted crest of the Cascades. One spot affords me the view from Three Sisters northward to distant Mt Hood through the trees. The last, first, light of the summer solstice burns bright in distant high clouds. Light lingers on the drive home. Do I feel the planet gently nudge its’ way back southward again? Maybe.

Last light

Tales of Twin Pillars

Heading back up the Ochoco’s to visit the upper trailhead to Twin Pillars trail.  How close was I to the trailhead when the road was blocked by snow in early May? Less than two miles, it seems. So close I could taste the trail, if I decided for some odd reason to eat the trailhead. Today’s motto: Eat the Trailhead!!!

The Forest Road heading north out of Prineville is lovely, a wide creek valley of fields and farms that slowly narrows and climbs into denser stands of Ponderosa pines, and increasing patches of wildflowers – yellow Mule’s ears, purple penstemons and lupines line the side of the road.

The first oddity of the trip was the car and ancient bus stopped in the middle of the road as I head towards the crest of this forest road. Dogs and people milling about in the meadow, and in the road.  Is there a music festival happening in the Ochoco’s today? Turns out there is a gathering of like-minded souls happening somewhere in the Ochoco’s this weekend. I get flashed many peace signs, which I generously return, as I drive by.

Up up up and over the crest line where I was turned away on my last drive up this road. I turn onto the gravel road that heads to the trailhead and see a huge open green meadow – no, this is not the part where I say there is a stage and a live band playing – but instead a vast lawn surrounded by trees. Bingham Prairie. An unexpectedly beautiful swath of open landscape near the crest of these hills. This is what I love best about the outdoors, simple, unexpected beauty. Assuming to see one landscape and finding something completely different, instead.

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The second oddity is arriving at the trailhead and finding that there is a group of families camped there and I am met by a loud wave of cacophony as I get out of the car: dogs endless barking, and the various owners repeatedly shouting at the dogs to shut up to no effect, along with several hidden babies crying nonstop. So much for the peaceful outdoors. This will not end well, time to exit this scene quickly!

Once away from the madness I am reminded how much I love the Ochoco’s. The western hills of the Ochoco’s are older, softer, more rounded, especially at this altitude. Little waterways slip through low ridge-lines, marshes turning into meadows filled with green grasses and tiny flowers. At some point during the hike I wander into the Mill Creek Wilderness, but that distinction is unclear on the trail.  There are many dead snags killed by pine bark beetles. Now surrounded by thickets of crowded, younger pines. The oldest trees, for the most part are lodgepole pines, and mountain hemlock, covered in lichen.  The entire hike is above 5000′ feet. I see many wildflowers, but I also see many flowers still to bloom, and I forget (because from Bend I am starting at 3600′) that even the modest elevation gains are leading to fairly high elevations for wildflowers to be in bloom this early in the year. Always more wildflowers to come it seems!

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Hundreds of wild strawberries line the trail, their ground-hugging white flowers in bloom. Tiny purple violets, occasional larkspur, pink wild onions, and as with other hikes, the promise of many lupine to come, later in the season, lining the trail.

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After winding through several meadows the trail climbs to a cliff-line dropping to Desolation Canyon below, and then further uphill through occasional tall trees, but mostly dense thickets of young pines crowding together. The high point of the trail is around the 5800′ level and after another mile or so the trail begins to descend and then moves into a decade old wildfire landscape. Because pines are built to survive most wildfires, there are still at least some pines with blackened bark that are very much alive in the canopy. However, there is also plenty of dead and blackened trees and branches that have fallen to the forest floor. As the trail continues to lose elevation heading towards the base of Twin Pillars there is very little ground cover other than occasional lupine and grasses beginning the recovery process. The forest still in the early stages of re-vegetation, and on this hot south facing slope, seed distribution and water are key for the cycle of growth to continue in this burnt landscape.

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The charred land makes the two basalt plugs of Twin Pillars even more dramatic rising from the dusty grey and black forest floor. Deep blue skies, frame these basalty plugs. Occasional dead, silver barked snags, provide contrast to the proceedings. Profound silence ‘fills’ the air.

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I take the time to absorb the area and admire the geology before heading back: today it is a hot, dry and dusty landscape. Outside the fire zone, though, the forest is a beautiful: a lush time for the Ochocos. Occasional surprise wildflowers appear. Young pines bright green from fresh spring growth. The air warm and clean. There is a rustling in the underbrush at one point; wild turkeys, deer or hippies I know not.  I arrive to solitude at the trailhead. The campers have left, and silence has, thankfully, returned to the lands.

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I relax, drink water, stretch and take early evening photos of Bingham Prairie. The meadow is now a model of stillness. Only a few early evening mosquitoes with their bloodsucking ways buzz through the silence. The unexpectedly wide open vistas, long lingering summer sunshine and a few fair weather cumulus clouds make for an captivating view. The low ridge across the meadow is a sea of close-knit firs. A few tall, silver columns of trees, that lost the battle against insects and the elements, rise above the verdant green below.

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I love long days like this – sleep in, get some chores done, and then head many miles away for a hike and still enjoy the drive home in sunshine. Heading down from the mountains a sight I haven’t seen before as a small raptor dives down over the car in front of me gliding right above the car for a while, and then suddenly swinging away. Hmm? Waiting for the traveling car to possible flush a bird along the side of the road or slip-streaming, hard to say, but as always, some wildlife learn and adapt to humans in mysterious ways that is always a wonder to see.

Nearing home, rising columns of smoke bespeak of a growing wildfire. The smoke a wall of black drifting southwest towards Newberry Crater fills the horizon. Much like the fire-scape I hiked through today, Central Oregon’s landscape lives in delicate balance, and peril, on a daily basis.

Badland’s Beltane

Memories, magic, myth. Remembering and renewing traditions of days of olde. Beltane, long ago the beginning of summer for some cultures – the half way point between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice – arrives with little fanfare in these parts.

With a strong connection to the outdoors comes the desire that certain days should be celebrated and revered in nature. There are many holidays, but very few that acknowledge the earth, or the natural world around us, and the time that passes with the changing of seasons. Is Arbor Day a big hit with anyone these days? Creating new holidays (or renewing the olde). I try as much as possible to make the solstice and equinox days to be outdoors, if only briefly – preferably all day – to observe the changes of sunlight, shadows rise and fall, leaves turn from green to gold, flowers rising from dirt, rock and sand and then fade away. To perceive, touch and feel the changes the planet goes through on a yearly basis. Endlessly.

A warm day, a longer day, this Beltane is happily about shorts and tank top. Heading out to a shrine to say, hello, to touch base, as it were. Sunny, long evening rays from a sun not ready to set. No one at the parking lot. So, it appears that no one else is out celebrating this Beltane in the Badlands. Beltane in the Badlands sounds like a concert, but there is none here today.

Every trip to the Badlands shrine is much like a Family Circus cartoon, since I never use the same route twice to reach the shrine, and so end up circling around aimlessly, slowly zeroing in on a slight rise, with a juniper snag that is the same, and yet different, from every other juniper snag in the Badlands. Have I been to this spot before? Maybe. Sure. But today’s wandering leads me to my first views of sand lilies, which I have never seen blooming before!!! Purest white, ground hugging, flowers. Rising from sandy ground, they are a(nother) wonder of nature, that will soon be gone, with no sign remaining, when high summer sun beats down on the ground. But for now, a welcome sign of spring beauty in the desert, a perfect miracle on Beltane.

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Around, and right, then down, and I finally see the guidepost rock that tells me I am close, to turn back around and head uphill to a rise memorable in its’ anonymity. There is my snag, there is the shrine, still unvisited, it seems.

Sitting on sturdy basalt in early evening light: curried chickpeas and water making a fine desert feast. Occasional doves and robins call into the void of stillness that otherwise surrounds this place. Moments of silent observation, turning to view the simple beauty of this place. The long rays of the warm, orange sunlight colors Pine Mountain on the horizon, and send beams of color through the junipers here on the ground floor as the sun slips behind the Cascades. The light begins to turn the sky a reddish hue as twilight descends.

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Lingering, the horizon explodes in colors. High desert sunsets can be most beautiful!

I walk back in deepening twilight, birds chattering as night descends. No grand Beltane celebration here, it seems. Traditional cultures would celebrate Beltane with a huge bonfire, perhaps not the best idea in the dry tinderbox of this wilderness area. Thoughts of, The Wicker Man, drift through my mind. I’d love to think there are like-minded people wearing masks dancing and running wild through the forests and sagebrush nearby. Or perhaps planting a garden on this day. Even weeding, I say. More mainstream religions have their rituals and words that are said on special days. Here, the words are more simple, sometimes expressed in birdsong, sometimes expressed in silence.

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The smallest Cheshire cat grin of a moon appears in the sky. Smiling down on a wonderful wilderness evening.

Beltane verse, for the Green Man, wandering far afield, stirring the lands from slumber, making them fruitful once more, with a twisted staff of juniper, hard like the basalt that covers this land, sagebrush rustles with his passing, juniper’s whisper on a windless evening, many miles traveled, many miles to go, rabbits watch silently, ears twitch nervously, and birdsong cease, as he continues on his way. On this day, at least, we believe.

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If at first…

The previous weekend I had headed out to find a new hiking trail, only to be turned away short miles from the trailhead by an unexpectedly snowed in roadway. So close, so far… Flash forward to the next weekend, and I am boldly heading into the Ochoco’s again! Once more into the mountains!!! This time I am driving up the Mills Creek Valley and heading to a trailhead that is lower in elevation than my previous destination the week before. Stein’s Pillar is one of those names, and geologic landmarks, that I have read and seen images about for years, and today was to be my first foray to this trailhead.

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A mild, mid-60s, partly cloudy day. Shuffling iPod provides a perfect soundtrack for another beautiful drive through juniper and sagebrush up into the mountains. I drive through Prineville, then 10 miles east, and headed up the Mills Creek Valley; a valley filled with family ranches and surrounded by low hills filled with juniper and fir. The turnoff for the Stein’s Pillar trailhead comes sooner than I was expecting as I settled into the beautiful valley, and the forest road well-maintained as I steadily gained elevation to around 4300.’ No snow to be seen anywhere on this south and west facing ridgeline. Once out of the car the air smells of warm pine. Lovely. Silence except for occasional bird song. A tiny spring that emerges just up from the parking area drifts through a grassy glade. The forest a mix of Ponderosa pine, spruce and occasional juniper on the warm sun facing fringes of the forest, but undergrowth is almost nonexistent.

From the trailhead, and a short switch back later, I come to my first meadow wildflowers! I have seen very few flowers so far this spring, so I’m excited to see many familiar faces in this rocky meadow; purple phlox, golden lomatium (parsley) and white death camas just beginning to bloom. The warm air has pockets of the lovely pungent smell of parsley, which takes me back to many wonderful hikes in the Columbia River Gorge. The trail winds through forest and open glades and new, and unfamiliar, flowers begin to appear; yellow heart-shaped arnica, each with one large yellow flower, and a lavender waterleaf, the flower blooming beneath the flower’s foliage, on the forest floor. Lovely.

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Open and sunny areas are filled with paintbrush in full bloom, and arrow-leaf balsamroot, again an old friend from the Gorge, though not quite as plentiful as the open grasslands of the Gorge. There are also areas filled with pink smooth Prairie Star along the trail. Farther along, the trail opens up and larger patches of reddish purple phlox cover the ground, clumps of balsamroot, lone large-headed clover in deep red and white, looking like peppermint candy and one lone Larkspur lurking under a shrub. The ground is mostly rocks and dirt, along with occasional patches of grass and shrubby deciduous trees. The whole area has a feel of certain meadows in the Columbia River Gorge-which is my comparison from years of spring hiking-but here the flowers are blooming 4000’ higher in elevation than much of the Gorge.

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I come across an area where there appears there might have been a lightning strike and a very small ground fire, and other than charred pieces of wood there is no ground cover whatsoever, and in the open space I see hundreds of heart-leaved Arnica rising from the soil. Each of these flowers produces one lovely yellow flower, and they are plentiful in this area, though many are not yet in bloom.

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Down, down, down the trail suddenly heads towards the viewpoint of Stein’s Pillar. The viewpoint – the end of a ridgeline – is a little grown over, but there it is, Stein’s Pillar, a column of pink and charcoal tuff, at the end of the next ridgeline, rising above the trees. Beautiful. An unexpected treat (of course, I knew it was there) in the otherwise softly worn and tree covered slopes of the Ochoco Mountains. A yardstick, as it were, for the rock beneath my feet; boulders and chunks of gray and pink rock covering the ground.

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This far away from civilization, the silence is blissful, away from busy roads or planes flying overhead, birdsong is the background noise; nuthatches, Stellar Jay’s and raptors break the silence. A trail runner startles me, looks at the view, goes “wow,” and turns and speeds away, leaving me in solitude once more. Solitude I find; the brain ceases to think, ears hearing silence and occasion bird song, the nose whiffs of warm pine, eyes view a new window of the world to appreciate as the long afternoon light lingers and changes as clouds drift by the scenery.

I think this is one of the things I appreciate most about being here in central Oregon, solitude. Even on a Saturday afternoon, I have only seen 5 other people. I really enjoyed this trail, as I do this mostly pine forests that are filled with equal amount trees and space, and the open areas of the Ochoco forests are very enticing for camping. I am now curious to see what other late spring and early summer wildflowers might appear along this trail. I’ll definitely be back.

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Leaving the trailhead, I drive to the Stein’s Pillar viewpoint in the valley below for another perspective, and appreciation, of this geologic oddity. The early evening sun lends a kind hue to this crazy column, and yet more photos are taken. A digital acknowledgement of something unique and beautiful in the world.

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Tam Times – Reminiscence – The Hand of Broken Top

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

Observe and Report

Some days hiking does not have to have a meaningful purpose.

Being outside, in the sunshine, feeling the breeze blowing by, white noise in my ears.

In search of wildflowers; missing them badly since moving away from the Gorge. An experiment in driving time verses mileage to find new ‘familiar’ stomping grounds. The Painted Hills I have been to several times, but always during high summer, filled with warm temperatures and dry grasses rustle above a baked landscape. Today, just stepping into spring, new green shoots mix amongst last years dried remains. Tiny, yellow ground hugging Lomatium; perhaps Henderson’s Desert Parsley, although Misters’ Henderson was not available for comment. Many, Yellow Bells, which makes me very happy to see a familiar face from my Gorge wildflower viewing. And also, pink Smooth Prairie Stars, just starting to bloom, as well.

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I see my first swallows flash by, rising over the ridge and back down into the valley – spring!!! Were they Tree Swallows or Violet-Green Swallows? Sure. By the time I recognized them, down into shadows they dove. But that 5 seconds or 10 seconds was all I needed to be very happy and realize their swift (or swallow) fly-by was a huge harbinger of spring. I was even more aware that these long migrators could well be heading for Washington, or Canada, with perhaps a quick stop over by the creek, and early rising insects – yes, I saw those, as well – was all the fuel stop they needed before adding more miles northward. As I write this a day later, how far north might they be already? Simple pleasures.

Sometimes the hike is in the hiking. Grinding out mileage and elevation, climbing the next switchback, heading for the prominent prominence from which to view the surrounding areas. Other times, like today, it is about looking down, and then around, decompressing in breezy sunshine, becoming another bump on the landscape, quiet and unobtrusive, some climbing to be sure, but mostly finding a viewpoint from which to observe the spaces around me, letting the outdoors come to me, so to speak.

Today is much more the latter. Finding wildflowers and taking photos, connecting with the world at ground level. Sitting on a rock, letting the sun warm me, and breeze buzz me. A little writing, a little reading and a lot of looking left and right, up and down, listening, watching for whatever comes, or not, it is all fine, I am immersed in outdoors.

I do not have cable, and haven’t watched television in years, but I am pretty sure I would not watch the livestock channel, should such a station exist, in my spare time and yet I find my attention drawn to the cows that wander free-range, but mostly along the road the leads to this National Monument, down and across the valley. Black cattle, with orbiting tan colored calves, moving above, below and on the road. There is not a lot of wildlife, and so the cattle are the only movement on the landscape, plus there is the fascination of whether someone driving around a corner is going to plow into one, since the cows themselves are oblivious to anything not edible. Not today, though.

The reddish basalt cliffs of Sutton Mountain fill the skyline, and contrast nicely with the deep blue sky above. My goal for May wildflowers. I relax this day and visualize routes up through the gullies and cliffs to the top. A warmer day, a less relaxing day, but for now I am content reminding myself that every hike does not have to bag a peak, and that sometimes watching cows is okay.

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Time passes, and the true magic of the Painted Hills is that they change in hue and form with each passing hour. Like swifts to a chimney, more people flock to the Monument as sunset approaches.

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A few more photos and I am off, keen to drive over the Ochocos in daylight and enjoy the rare sparkles of water in the perennial streams and meadows along the road. A simple day, indeed.

Summer Day Thoughts – Reminiscence; Catherine Creek, 8.3.2012

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve discovered that I equally prefer places that are often mundane, or in the middle of nowhere, filled with solitude, as much as the hike that leads to the spectacular viewpoint. Getting to know a place throughout the year, throughout the seasons, the cycle of trees and wildflowers, the appearance and disappearance of the birds and wildlife that frequent the area, are often as pleasurable as a spectacular view of mountains or waterfall.

One place that I visited more often than any other in my years of hiking has been, Catherine Creek, in Washington state. Well known for its’ incredible spring wildflower displays, that begin in February and last well into May or June, but I also find that I have been repeatedly drawn back to Catherine Creek in mid-to-late summer when all the wildflower enthusiasts have long since fled and all that is left is isolation and the wind blowing through the tall grasses that have gone to seed.

On a scorching August day I arrived to find that I’m the only car in the parking lot, but it is one of those summer days where I simply cannot stay in town and I must get outdoors. A late start, squeezing through the beginnings of rush-hour traffic, into a leisurely drive through the Gorge to find myself here at Catherine Creek in mid-afternoon.

I wander up a well-traveled trail, past the long dried stream bed of Catherine Creek, deep blue sky summer sun bearing down but with a perfect breeze, no humidity, and the white noise of wind through grasses and the occasional call of the meadowlarks, hiding in shade; perfect weather to sit for hours reading and writing and watching the summer sun head westward. 90 degrees with no wind unbearable, 90 degrees with a steady breeze perfection.

Wild grasses at CC

On summer days like these it is easy to settle into the rhythm and flow of my surroundings; robins chasing a ground squirrel out of fir, a kite that buzzes low overhead, and then hops from tree to tree observing me, red tail hawks that circle in the sky – I am definitely the oddity out here on this grassy slope on this summer afternoon- two adults and a fledgling that spend the afternoon soaring, in constant conversation with one another on the day unfolding.

Today is all about the simple act of observation, in stillness. Sitting cross-legged, embracing the 360 view around me, a slow, languorous day, becoming just another bump on the land. A group of wild turkeys move slowly farther up the ridge, always with one keeping an eye on me even though I’m hundreds of feet away from them.  I am thrilled to see wild turkeys on the slopes above Catherine Creek, though I’ve seen them in several other locations here on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge, their increasing numbers is good news, and a simple highlight of the day.

Wild Turkeys

An impromptu live poetry reading of Michael McClure ensues on a hillock, shadows begin to lengthen, the sun eases westerly and a growing feeling of melancholy at the thought of heading home as another perfect summer day passes by…
Summer shadows