Talk on the Street Says You Might Go Solo

After college, I moved into a house in DC with four fraternity brothers and a golden retriever. The year after that Kim and I lived together in a house shared with three other friends. Kim and I then got own apartment for a year before picking up and moving across the country. As I first prepared to move in with Kim I wondered if I was missing out on an important life experience by never living on my own. To be completely autonomous seemed to me like something every man should at least try.

I was reminded of this faint desire when Kim flew back to DC on business last Thursday. Without close friends in Portland,  I realized I was going to have more time to myself than I was used to. After a boring Friday night, I resolved to spend what was supposed to be a beautiful sunny Saturday outdoors. I started planning a solo day hike to Mount Hood. I hadn’t been to the Mount Hood National Forest since moving here, so a visit was long overdue.

Driving east on Saturday morning, I stated to think about why exactly we find mountains so captivating. I think that much of the mystique of the American West is tied to its snow-capped mountains. I grew up with the endless ridges and muddy creeks of Appalachian Mountains, and they’ll always have a place in my heart, but the Rockies, Sierras and Cascades just blow me away.

In the Portland area, massive peaks aren’t stacked together like in Wyoming or Colorado.  Instead, a select few—Mount Adams, Ranier, and Hood – punctuate the northeastern skyline. (This trio used to be a quartet, until 1980, when Mount St. Helens erupted. On clear days, I can see St. Helens’ humbled brown hump from my running route, and I can’t help but feel like it get picked on by the other mountains for being too short to gather snow.) Ranier and Adams reside across the river in Washington, leaving Mt. Hood as Portland’s official mascot.  Just 50 miles east of the city, Mt. Hood juts skyward, its peak reaching 11,200 ft. It resembles a wizard’s hat, a perfect triangle; like the mountains I used to draw as a child.

The previous evening, I set my heart on one particular hike, Elk Cove via Vista Ridge Trail. The directions to trailhead involved an hour’s worth of one lane, unpaved Forest Service roads that zigzagged up the base of the mountain. Fittingly, the excursion began in the mountain town of Zigzag. It’s located just beyond the towns of Sandy, Rhododendron, and Boring. That’s right, Boring, Oregon. I started to second-guess the decision to reserve the Scion Zipcar, the car with probably the smallest tires on the market, after a couple miles of steep winding ascents and gaping potholes.

Fighting both the road and the clock, I reached the surprisingly crowded trailhead at 1:00pm. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to reach Elk Cove and double back, 8.5 miles roundtrip, and still navigate my way back to Zigzag, before dark. I bolted up the trail toward Hood’s timberline. After a couple miles I emerged from a thick forest of fir trees to a rock scree with an amazing panoramic view of St. Hellens, Adams, and Ranier. The sky was cloudless and sunny, and the cool mountain air made for perfect hiking conditions. More than a few times, I thought of an obscure factoid or came up with a lame joke, and felt the strong urge to share it with someone. I guess that’s one of the cons for solo hiking.

Adams and Ranier

I passed a few small groups of hikers, some graybeards armed with dual hiking poles and a group of guys and girls around my age, but felt comfortably isolated for most of the trip. I reached Elk Cove, and felt assured that I had selected the right trail. As advertised on the hiking website where I conducted my research, the mountain meadow was breathtaking. Wild berry bushes were turning orange and red, bright ribbons of glacial water tumbled through fields of golden grasses.

It’s been said that Portland’s big drawback is a lack of seasons. There’s no fall or spring, just a short sunny summer and a long wet winter. This hike alone proved that autumn was alive and well in the Pacific Northwest.

I took a handful of pictures, then doubled back toward a stream bank to have my lunch. Given the view, my PB&J sandwich and canteen-full of mountain water made for one of the best lunches I’ve ever had.

Entering Elk Cove

My lunch spot

The trail was littered with semi-fresh elk tracks (so that’s why they call it Elk Cove), and I was hopeful that I’d cap off a perfect afternoon with an animal sighting. I heard some bushes rustling, upon closer inspection, realized it was just the group of young hikers trying to chemically enhance their outdoor experience. Oh well. I looked at my watch, and decided to head back toward my Scion.  I was tired and sunburned, yet restored.

An elk's been through these parts.

The western pasque flower pods known as the old man of the mountain, since they look like beards. As if Portland needed more beards.

Back at the car, I called Kim to let her know I got off the trail safe. Part of me felt like a dork reporting to my girlfriend that I made it back from a simple afternoon hike. A much larger part of me felt excited to have discovered a new place to visit with her later.My afternoon on Mt. Hood was both salubrious and edifying. I managed to shed some stress, have time alone with my thoughts, take in some natural beauty, and better appreciate the joy of having a companion both on the trail and in life.

Mt. Hood in Autumn

-J

Like the Wheel that Keeps Travellers Travelling On

One the surface this is nothing more than a routine redemption story; pretty trite and well-worn territory.  While hiking a stretch of the Appalachian Trail in Tennessee, my Dad happened across a 48-year-old man attempting to hike the entire length of the trail–2,175 miles from Georgia to Maine. The feat is nearly unfathomable for amateur hikers like me. I feel separation anxiety without internet access and am desperate for a shower after a three-day excursion.

When my dad met Doug, he was armed with months of spare time and the singular determination necessary to have a puncher’s chance at completing the journey. That’s about all he had going for him. Doug was broke, alone, nearly deaf, hampered by injuries, and grappling with enough inner demons to ruin ten men. To make matters worse, his gear was heavy and inadequate.

In Doug, my father recognized a man searching the wilderness for solace and redemption, and was inspired to help. Since their first encounter in May, my dad has been corresponding with Country Gold (Doug’s trail moniker), offering support through encouragement and much needed equipment upgrades.

Many of my dad’s friends and fellow outdoor enthusiasts have been moved by Doug’s persistence, and have donated money to help his cause. I’m writing about this story today in the hope that some of you, my awesome readers, might feel compelled to donate, or forward the story on to fellow hikers. To learn more, please check out the newly created blog dedicated to tracking Country Gold’s progress:

http://countrygold.wordpress.com

Country's somewhere in there.

PS: I often think of Doug’s journey when I hear this awesome song, Like the Wheel by the Tallest Man on Earth. I’ve been listening to it a lot lately.

-J

The Tao of Jay

I started my new job ( it’s part-time, but it’s something) last week, and I already feel really lucky to have found another great work environment. The people are friendly, the office is fun and comfortable, and the work is new and interesting. I’m big on perks, and this office offers plenty of them: World Cup Coffee (a great NW brand), bike parking, gym and shower facilities (great for commuting), a window that looks out to the western hills, and a casual dress code. To top it off, I got a sweet bike commuter t-shirt on my first day. I think the keys for finding a great work atmosphere are simple; 1. work in the environmental  field, where everyone cares about living a healthy, organic, and sustainable. 2. work in Portland where all of the values listed in point one are amplified 500 percent.

Still, being excited about working in an office  feels a little strange to me. After all, I was desperate to leave a pretty similar situation in May. I guess the grass is always greener when you’re a wistful, waffling, restless guy in his mid-twenties.  The process is oddly cyclical and symmetrical:

-J

The Wild Hunt

On my nephew Lucas’s actual birthday (the day after his party), Lee, Sage, and I decided explore someplace new. Lee’s friend had recently mentioned a beach called Whytecliff Park, where families could go soak up the summer sunshine, observe local marine life, and great views of Vancouver’s coastal islands. Knowing that the boys, Luke and Jude, were coming off an eventful, napless day, Sage and Lee weighed the potential for a long day of driving and crankiness against the possibility of a fun new adventure, and decided to hold out hope for the latter. It had been a little while since my last outdoor excursion, and I knew the next day would be consumed by a cramped 8-hour return train ride, so I was delighted by the decision. After picking up some scrumptious bagel sandwiches and muffins from Beans, the local coffee shop of choice, we ventured north through Stanley Park, over the Lions Gate Bridge, and west toward our destination.

I consider Portland an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise because both beaches and mountain ranges can be reached in less than two hours. Yet Vancouver nonchalantly blows Portland out of the water by offering mountains and the ocean within two feet of one another. The city even has islands with massive mountains on top of them! I can’t help but fee like Vancouver would be more boastful about this setup if it were in America—and if the views of the oceans and mountains weren’t obscured by drizzly fog nine months out of the year. In late summer, however, it’s one of the most beautiful places on earth.

We arrived at Whytecliff park and commenced a breakfast with an amazing 180-degree panoramic view of the ocean and neighboring islands, Bowen, Anvil, and Victoria (which kind of sound like the members of an indie-folk-rock band). After breakfast, we headed down to the beach. On our way, Lee pointed out some men pulling scuba gear out of their truck. Divers, along with policemen, firemen, and robots, fascinate Lukey. The encounter wasn’t entirely by chance though; Lee learned in his research that Whytecliff was a popular diving spot on account of the water’s high visibility and abundant wildlife.

The shore was comprised of massive driftwood logs and smooth but sizable stones. There was no white sand to be found, but the water was clear and teaming with marine life. The crescent shoreline merged into a jetty of boulders that offered passage to the massive boulder known as Whyte Island. With its dome shape and weathered trees, the island reminded me of the cantankerous giant turtle from The Neverending Story. It made me hope the island wouldn’t lift its giant head from the water and start discouraging us.

Whyte Island aka Morla

"Caring? I don't even care about caring."

Lee and I spent a few minutes spotting seal heads in the cove while Jude flung little stones into the water and Luke selected a stick aptly suited for whacking and poking. After that, Lee strapped Jude on his back and we headed out on the jetty to explore the turtle island.

The submerged rocks along the land bridge were lush with seaweed and dotted with mussels and giant purple starfish. Before long I realized that the seals circling the island were similarly intrigued by the tiny sea life. A seal was scouring the underwater rock wall like an old lady at a deli, tentatively poking around, repeatedly sampling different items before finally deciding on something and scampering away with it. I was captivated by this whole process. I waited patiently for a new seal to surface for air so that I could follow its gliding movements before disappearing back into the depths. Meanwhile, Luke and his rock-climbing partner, Momma Sage, turned back to get a better look at the scuba guys. Lee and Jude headed also headed back to set up a picnic. I felt secretly lucky to be a child disguised as a grown man so I could climb around on the rocks without supervision and hunt for more seals.

Back on the beach, our whole gang chomped on leftover pizza and relaxed to the soft lapping of waves caused by the wakes of passing ferries. The sun was warm but not hot, and I felt compelled to take swim as a farewell to summer. No one joined me, aside from the seals bobbing around a few hundred feet away. The water was icy cold but refreshing and remarkable clean. I wasn’t sure if the water here was somehow warmer than the swims I took further south in Oregon and Wyoming, or if I was developing a tolerance.

Ready...Aim...

Yay!

Sensing that some naps were long overdue, we headed home. We took bets on how long into the ride Jude would be asleep, with the winning time somewhere in the three to four minute range. It may have just been the warmth of the sun drying my skin, or sing-along children’s folk songs playing on the CD player, but I felt terrific. More likely, it was the fun of a successful outdoor exploration with my big bro and his kids—two generations of brothers bonded by a fascination with all things living, growing, and interconnected. I felt a joy deeply tied to my own childhood memories, like catching frogs in the pond by the hours where we grew up. It’s an idealized memory of times remembered as simple, natural, and unadulterated by pretense and insecurity; the kind that Arcade Fire, MGMT, and many other contemporary artists use to identify with us. It’s a happy memory nonetheless, and I glad Luke and Jude will have similar memories of their own to look back on someday.

The title of this post references the song,  “The Wild Hunt” by the Tallest Man on Earth. I think it fits the mood of the season, and I love the sound, even though it kind of sounds like Bob Dylan if Bob Dylan was a cat having its tail stepped on.

Vancouver by Train

In my early twenties, I felt as if I was as far removed from childhood as I would ever be. As a teenager, my own childhood was fresh in my memory and I was careful to make sure I never forgot how to play as I grew into an adult. I wasn’t sure about what kind of grown man I wanted to be, but I knew I would be more Josh Baskin than Gordon Gekko. I could easily recall the simple joy of looking for crawfish under rocks in murky creeks with my friends, and I knew I never wanted to lose my sense of wonder.

My brother Lee and his wife had their first child when I was in college. I was twenty-one, and I simply could not comprehend the responsibility of raising a son. Without giving it too much thought, I’d always figured that I’d have children some day, but it was a distant and opaque notion, like marriage and financial planning. In the meantime, I was preoccupied with intramural flag football games and deciding which useless humanities major to declare. I dabbled in Education for a few semesters, and during some required tutoring, I discovered that I had no idea how to interact with children. Simply asking, “How are you?” could result in an entire battery of responses, ranging from shouting the word, “poopy!” to a swift kick in the shins or punch in the groin. At the time I was living in a frat house, so this behavior wasn’t completely alien to me, but I couldn’t react in the same way with kids. I wanted to be good with children, but it wasn’t coming to me as naturally as I’d hoped.

Last week, Lee’s wife, Sage, sent me an e-mail inviting me up to Vancouver, BC to attend little Lucas’s fourth birthday party. She told me that an Amtrak line had recently opened up service form Portland to Vancouver, and suggest I look into it. Back in DC, when Kim and I were thinking of West Coast destinations to move to, we counted closer proximity to Lee as a major pro for the Pacific Northwest (I think “10 months of rain” was listed in the adjacent cons column). This seemed like the perfect opportunity to take advantage of that pro, so I booked the tickets.

I boarded the train in Portland the afternoon before Luke’s big party, and I settled in for the 8-hour train ride. The trip only takes 5 hours by car, but the Cascades line connects a number of small towns in a meandering, question mark-shaped route. It irked me to think that a flight from Washington, DC to Vancouver would take less time, but then I recalled that those tickets cost three times as much. The stretch from Portland to Seattle was uneventful, with scenic groves of Douglas firs lining the tracks in some instances, and expanses of construction debris lining them in others. It was a prettier trip than the Amtrak from DC to Trenton, but that’s not too strong of a compliment.

After Seattle, the train emptied out a bit and the tracks started following the Puget Sound shoreline. My knees sufficiently cramped, I headed to the “Café Bistro” car for a soggy and overpriced sandwich, then sat down to soak in the view from a spacious café car.

It was a clear summer evening as the sun set behind the mountainous horizon of the Olympic Peninsula. The sunset in the Pacific Northwest is an endangered animal, rarely seen, but especially captivating to behold when it appears. Along the shore, harbor seals turned their heads toward the train with quixotic stares. I could even see the snowcaps of Mount Baker and the rest of the Northern Cascades jutting skyward, reflecting soft orange light in the distance. After a few minutes of gazing out the window, my roast beef didn’t seem half bad. Thanks to a fortunate mix of timing and weather I was enjoying one of the most scenic train rides of my life. I debating running back to my seat for my camera, but instead elected to enjoy the last moments of the sunset in peace.

Not my shot, but it looked like this in Everett, WA

When I arrived in Vancouver at 11:00pm, the three-year-old who had been struggling to behave a few rows behind me saw the line at customs and finally snapped. He wrapped himself around his mom’s leg and commenced a 30-minute session of uninterrupted hysterical sobbing. Half asleep, and highly irritated, I started to wonder how well I would manage over two days in the company of babies and toddlers.  Lee met me at the station and drove me to The Whip, a local bar where we caught up over some tasty beers and poutine.

I woke up on Lee’s couch the next morning when I heard baby Jude’s feet thundering toward me. Lucas’s one-year old brother wasn’t quite walking when Kim and I lasted visited Vancouver in April, but the little towhead affectionately referred to as “Bubba” had grown and learned a lot in only a few months. Immediately after Jude’s entrance, a much taller, leaner Lucas than the one I remembered emerged from his room, ready to play. Only a child can wake me up at 7:00am with a slap on the head and still make make me smile.

Luke, Jude, and I spend the day playing while Papa Lee attended some work meetings and Momma Sage iced cupcakes, picked up balloons, and ordered pizzas for the big party. We played inside with legos and trains, then outside with hockey sticks and tricycles. I thought I remembered child’s play being less exhausting, but I guess that’s because I was getting to sleep around 7:00pm when I last engaged in it. Much to Momma’s chagrin, Lucas declined a nap, and we played straight through to the big party at the park. After setting up a picnic table with snacks, I reintroduced myself to a number of Lee’s family friends, chatted a while, then played a little soccer. Lucas ran all over the field while Bubba Jude took a laid back approach to partying, and methodically chomped on his pizza.

Bubba Jude

As the shindig was winding down, Lucas lost hold of his balloon for a second and it floated high into the tree limbs above him. Along with dropping an ice cream cone on the sidewalk, I remembered this as one of the timeless tragedies of childhood. In this instance, it was also a chance for Uncle Jay to play hero. I climbed atop the picnic table, lept up and snagged the last inch of the balloon string before slipping on my butt in an embarrassing landing. It didn’t matter. Luke had his balloon and his happiness restored.

Luke in motion

It was incredible how adroitly Sage, Lee, and their friends worked together to pull off a party for 35 people, all while keeping a gang of toddlers entertained and happy. I got a glimpse of how parenting is an exercise in planning, devotion, and perpetual learning. For now, the role of Uncle Jay is all I can handle, but I’ve really enjoyed seeing how my brother has become Papa Lee.

Luke and Jude are growing from a toddler and a baby into a child and toddler at an alarming rate. As they grow and change, I know their parents will help them become even more interesting and wonderful boys, and I’m thrilled to now be close enough to watch it happen from time to time.

It’s a Start

Yesterday was the first day consistently rainy day I’ve experienced since moving to Portland.  A light drizzle swelled into a downpour in the afternoon as I was perusing gadgets at a local toy store.  It was the last day of August, but I had the distinct impression that I was already entering the dreaded fall-to-winter-to spring Pacific Northwest doldrums.

As I was trying to decide what would make the ultimate birthday present for my nephew, I got a phone call from an organization I interviewed with last Friday.  The kindly representative informed me that I got the job, and we worked out the details of what should be a nice little arrangement. [It’s a part-time gig, but it will allow me to learn about the sustainable energy industry in Oregon, and more importantly, leave the house a few times a week. It’s a start.]

I was as happy as a kid in a toy store. Actually, I was happier. The kid next to me was crying because his parents told him he had 5 seconds to decide what to buy. I walked out of the store and into the driving rain. I sidled down the sidewalk, presents in hand, and I almost felt compelled to hop into the street and give my best Gene Kelly impression.

Yesterday turned out to be both the brightest and dreariest day I’ve had in while.