I Hiked in the Woods

My summer adventure is nearing an end. Just a few more days of ocean and trees before I return to the desert. Since yesterday’s forest hike has to last me for a while, I stayed out most of the day, following one trail after another until I reached the site of my very first hike up here. It was an odd sensation, coming out of the forest to that very spot, as if I’d spent all these weeks wandering in the trees without a break. It certainly felt like weeks, though it was only six hours uphill, downhill, along rivers and creeks, picking my way on gnarly trails, tripping over roots, feeding myriad mosquitoes. (Apparently the mosquito-repellant bracelet I wore was effective only in areas without mosquitoes.

I didn’t make it to the touristy Stout Grove as I intended — the bridge across the creek came down on the 1st of September — nor did I find the trail to a secret grove where some of the forest’s biggest and oldest trees hold court, but I did find one lovely grove of giants among giants. I would have taken a photo, but those trees were so large, all that showed up in the viewfinder was a part of the trunk.

And that grove was only one of the wonders of this final redwood journey. The trail went through a tree trunk (the photo looks like light passing between two trunks since I couldn’t step back far enough to get a photo of the single tree). The trail went under a floating forest (all sorts of trees and plants grow on fallen tree trunks, and this fallen tree never had reached the ground). It passed through a bizarrely awesome tunnel with a fallen redwood creating a 300-foot wall on one side of the trail and deciduous trees on the other side forming a canopy over head.

I saw the green of the Smith River far beneath me, and when I came out of the forest onto the riverbank, I took a photo of the forest from which I had emerged, and I find it impossible to imagine myself hiking in there, a speck compared to those gargantuan specimens. Apparently, although my mind registered what I saw, it cannot acknowledge that I was physically present.

And it is hard to acknowledge. In my mind, I am the eternal bookworm, sitting comfortably and safely, reading about other people’s adventures. In one place, the trail was nearly vertical for two or three yards, and though I know I scrambled up that bank, I don’t exactly know how I did it. Such a strange activity for a bookish woman.

All these experiences seem as hard to believe as my years of profound grief. I sometimes wonder if that woman was really me, that woman who loved a man so deeply that his death all but shattered her. Now I wonder if this intrepid woman is really me. Since neither of these traits — deeply emotional, ardently adventurous — fit with my view of my prosaic self, I suppose it’s time to reevalute my view of myself. Or not. Perhaps I really am just lounging on some cosmic couch, comfortably and safely imagining this life.

But such a vivid imagination is not something I credit myself with, either, which then means I am imagining myself imagining myself . . .

Still, however it happened, whether I believe it or find it impossible to fathom, I hiked in the woods, and I have the photos to prove it.

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(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

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Walking Back in Time

Yesterday I hiked through an old-growth redwood forest. The trail was difficult, mostly because of exposed tree roots and the 80% humidity, but the experience was . . . immense. When there were no other people around with their non-stop chatter, the silence was profound. In spots, a screeching bird or gurgling brook rang clear, and the sound of my footsteps always accompanied me but otherwise . . . silence. And when I stopped to listen, nothing seemed to exist except that soundless forest, not even me.

I felt as if I were walking back into time, and of course, I was — the forest is thousands of years old. At one point I was reminded of Ray Bradbury’s story “The Butterfly Effect,” and I wondered if the world would be different when I emerged from the forest, but then, I’d be different too, so how would I know?

The oddest thing about my little adventure is I barely remember it. My aching body tells me I was there, but my memory of the experience is distant, as if it happened a long time ago. Maybe those four hours spent hiking in that primeval forest were so inconceivable that my brain couldn’t register it. Maybe I was so caught up in the immediacy of every awe-filled moment that I didn’t capture the feeling of the whole thing. Maybe I was subsumed into the forest — became, for all those hours, not me but a part of a greater whole.

Or maybe I really did walk back in time, and my adventure happened many years ago. In such an incredible and incredibly ancient place, anything is possible.

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(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

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Out of the Grimmest Fairy Tale

I spent a lot of time during the past five years roaming the desert. Even when I went hiking in the nearby mountains, the vegetation grew sparsely as befitting a desert climate. Now I’m visiting an area that is so far from being a desert, it’s like a different planet.

Sometimes the green growth seems too way too much of a good (or bad) thing, like butter on bacon. Trees, ferns, moss, vines, shrubs spilling all together in an impenetrable lush wall.

And sometimes parts of this overwhelming growth are downright creepy.

Yesterday I stumbled upon a nearby county campground, the camp sites hewn out of the edges of an ancient forest. I meandered through the trees, away from the campers, following a little used trail. Although this was just a small isolated piece of the Redwood Forest, cut off from the whole by highways and private property, it seemed as if I’d been dropped in the middle of a vast and dense woods, something straight out of the grimmest fairy tale — a black forest where trolls roamed, deformed toads lived in the slimy creek, and creatures were imprisoned in tree bark by evil wizards.

For some reason known only to my phone, the photos I took came out bright and cheery, and give only a hint of how creepy the place was. Not only was the forest dense, dark, and dank, ghosts of an unimaginably ancient forest remained where redwoods had been felled. New trees grew out of the old. Fire and time carved caves in the massive stumps. And mold colored them green.

Eek.

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(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

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Supernal Silence and Unfathomable Peace

My friend dropped me off at a road in the Redwood Forest that led down to Smith River. It turned out to be a popular spot for both tourists and locals, so when I saw a narrow trail that veered off from the road, I took it, hoping to find a place to walk far from the madding crowd. At first it was an easy trail, but then it ascended into hills that had been hidden in the immensely tall redwoods. (It’s hard to describe these massive trees without reverting to the trite adjective “towering”, but they did tower. In many cases they were so tall and the woods so thick it was impossible to stand back far enough to see their tops.)

The trail grew more difficult and I was grateful for my trekking pole — it aided with both balance and sure-footedness. Even though the cars and people were not far away, the trees absorbed the sound, leaving nothing for me to hear but the sound of my stepping feet, the zip of a passing insect, the thud of a falling leaf.

I moved slowly, not just for safety but to experience fully this confluence of the forest and me. It seemed strange to think that hundreds — thousands? — of years ago, the first seed took root. And that single seed contained an entire universe of forest, events, beings, birth and death, that ultimately drew me in.

A bench in a small clearing caught my attention. A plaque on the backrest said, “…seated here in contemplation lost, my thought discovers vaster space beyond. Supernal silence and unfathomable peace.”

Of course I sat. Contemplated. Listened to the silence. Felt at peace. Wondered what I would learn and experience if I could sit there for hours. I know what I would feel if I sat there in stillness too long — stiff — so after a half hour, I answered the siren call of the trail.

Later, I saw another bench. This one exhorted me to “Rest and be grateful.” I rested, pulled out my small hunk of cheese, and thought of all I had to be grateful for. The bench. The cheese I savored. The trees. The path that afforded me relative safety in my adventure. My walking stick. Knees that still worked. Feet that took me where I needed to go. Friends who brought richness to my life. The supernal silence. The unfathomable peace.

When I finished the snack and litany of gratitude, I continued my journey.

Shrieks of playing children broke the silence. As I waded past one group, a boy shouted hello. I was so deep in my silence, I couldn’t return the greeting. The woman said, “It was nice of you to say hello.” That brought me to a stop. I turned, and with a finger to my lips, responded to her rebuke with a whispered, “one does not say hello in church.”

In the resulting silence, I headed down the path. It seemed strange that a mystical place for me was simply a playground for others. Most people I’d seen had driven a bit, got out of their cars to take pictures of each other against the backdrop of trees, then drove a bit further, stopped, and took more photos. Others had boats, rafts, and swimwear, headed for watery play.

As I picked my way down the trail, setting my feet carefully and leaning on my pole in the steep post, I had to smile at my pretensions. Wasn’t I playing too? Playing at mysticism? Playing at adventure?

At that very moment, a woman came up the trail with her three noisy unleashed dogs. The dogs surrounded me, barking and snarling, nipping at my pants. The woman screamed at me to stand still, that I was scaring them. And then one of them bit me. Not a bad bite, just a small break in the skin and a bruise, but huh? That was the third time I’d been menaced by dogs since I’ve been here. Don’t people up here train their dogs to obey?

So much for safe adventures. So much for peace.

Despite the ignominious end to my adventure, somewhere inside me and forever a part of me, is the stillness I’d found sitting on the bench, my back pressed against the words “…seated here in contemplation lost, my thought discovers vaster space beyond. Supernal silence and unfathomable peace.”

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(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

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The Last Few Days of a Settled Life

Such a strange transitional state, these last few days of a settled life. I’m at my computer, perched on a stool at the kitchen counter, which is the only table-like surface in this empty house. (I’ve never quite got the laptop aspect of a laptop computer. Too much heat on my legs, and too hard to type.) Because of the uncomfortable stool, I have to get up every few minutes to stretch, which makes it hard to think. It’s a good thing, then, that I have nothing to think at the moment.

I had lunch with a friend this afternoon, who half-jokingly told me I could stay at her house when she took a trip, and as soon as I accepted, the joking tone disappeared. She’s delighted to have someone stay there when she’s gone. An empty house is an unstable house. What if a pipe breaks? What if the plants die? Well now she doesn’t have to worry. (Unless, of course, the plants commit hari-kari to get away from my black thumb and what they might see as a tortured death.) The dates are unspecified as of yet, but it will be good to have a plaangelce to alight for a couple of weeks.

Someone else told me about a “trail angel” job opening up. The usual trail angel (someone who helps those who walk the long-distance national trails) can’t do it this year, and he is looking for an angel to fill in. I don’t suppose I could be called an angel under any circumstances, but what an interesting experience for a writer — a completely different point of view about thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. I can’t commit to the whole time (because of the afore-mentioned house-sitting situation) but maybe he’d be willing to let me do just a few weeks.

A nomadic life, at least for now, seems way more exciting than simply renting a room or even an apartment. Every week or two, circumstances would change, and perhaps new choices and challenges would present themselves, including teaching myself the rudiments of camping and backpacking. (There are all sorts of programs and books available, but only I know the circumstances of my needs, and in the end, everyone has to hike their own hike.)

The same friend (the one I had lunch with today) told me I was so very brave to go camping by myself, and I had to remind her that I am still all talk. I have yet to step into a tent or climb into a hammock, though I did sleep on the floor last night because I felt too lazy to drag the old mattress from the garage (where it had been stored) to the bedroom. Besides, sleeping on the ground will be good practice, though the half-dozen or so pillows I used to prop myself up probably defeated the purpose. Maybe a hammock would be better than a tent, but how does one hang a hammock in the Redwood Forest?

So many things to learn! So many places to go, trails to walk, parks to visit. And dances to dance. (The good thing about housesitting for my friend is that I would be able to take classes again!)

All of those things are still just words on paper, but someday . . . someday . . . the tug of adventure will call me beyond words to the reality.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.