Last month, when we went to the art museum to see the photography exhibit about the Columbia Gorge, I bought a book in the gift shop called Portland Hill Walks: Twenty Explorations in Parks and Neighborhoods by Laura O. Foster. I started to read it that night, and immediately began conspiring with myself to take Walk #1, Willamette Heights to Balch Creek Canyon Loop.
I got pretty emotional when I was reading the book. I knew that something was changing for me because of it. Before my accident, I had been a walker. Walking defined so much about me. I can't explain to you how much I loved it. I tried one time to explain, but I don't know that I really got it right. In the years since 1998, walking has had to be replaced by other things that don't cause so much pain, or, worse, risk the fragile tissue we've worked so hard to regrow, but the urge to do it never goes away. Lately I have been desperate to get back to the woods, a place I grew up in; I didn't even really know how much I was feeling it until I was in bed one night a few weeks ago, reading the book by the glow of my tiny nightlight, and I started to cry.
That was sort of a clue.
But I think they were really tears of relief, in a way: The book had arrived.
It's a book of walks, joyfully (you can tell) taken, carefully detailed, lovingly described by Ms. Foster. She has a writer's sensibility, and writes like a dream, but she is also herself an editor, and editors have that uncanny ability to focus intensely on the small stuff — there are excellent maps, precise mileage counts and elevations, and very well indicated directions — while never losing sight of the big stuff: Historical information, fascinating anecdotes, and geological descriptions place you squarely in the context of the physical place you're walking through.
But what was different about it for me, as I looked at the maps and calculated the elevations and imagined the terrain based on her descriptions, was that I felt as if I were walking it as I was reading it, or at least I felt confident that I would responsibly know what I was in for if I walked it — if I went off-trail like this — in a way that maybe only the compromised can really appreciate. "Know" in a way that inspires confidence, and makes you think you can just begin. A small, private victory that may be different from most, or not something anyone else can imagine, or, at least, seems like less than they'd expect from you. But you know. You know you've scored the chance to change. And it feels like grace, something suddenly bestowed.
On Saturday, we went. Through neighborhoods we never knew existed (though that's not saying much, since we tend to circle the well-worn paths around our own quite happily, being both homebodies and creatures of habit) and on wooded paths we couldn't have imagined, Andy and Clover and I spent this misty, late-winter afternoon lost in slow steps and shared wonder. We felt very far from home, though, amazingly, we could look down and see the brew pub where we had dinner last week, the gleaming port, the river we cross every day, just below. What smells, of wood and water and hidden things, were these? What light, through this odd, fir-treed filter? Where were we, here on the green-fringed edge of the eleven-mile-long Leif Erickson trail, built in 1915 and planned as a conduit between several yet-unbuilt subdivisions named, optimistically, Maybrook, Ridgewood, Regents Heights? They would be abandoned and later forfeited to the city, since the dramatic, ravine-crossing road was doomed to repeated washout.
Whose house is this, huddled into the hillside?
To what secret place does this mossy-soft stairway lead?
Why has it taken me so long to get here, or is this, in fact, just the right time?
In and out of woods and neighborhoods we wove, shocked to find that the line between the two was blurred and indistinct (and, frequently and unfortunately, covered in invasive ivy). From the stately, enormous old homes and hushed, sleepy streets of Willamette Heights, we made our way down to the Wildwood Trail and into Forest Park, past the site of the old dairy, past mushrooms as big as dinner plates, and further into Balch Creek Canyon, which, according to the book, was named after Danford Balch. He had once owned the surrounding property and was hanged in 1859 for shooting the man who had married his fifteen-year-old daughter, while she (and five hundred other) Portlanders watched. As it turned from afternoon to late afternoon, we wound our way down to the creek.
Around the bend, a witch's house.
At the bottom of the canyon, toward the end of the loop, it was busier, more developed (a bright, new fence lined the path), and colder, and my lens started to fog up, which has never happened before.
Or else, the place is really enchanted.
Makes you wonder.
It is for me, anyway. It was almost 4.5 miles in all, and I made it the entire way.