Wednesday, February 10, 2010


sunday morning i got up in the dark. i threw some food, the binoculars, and a plant book in my backpack, a change of shoes in the car. i kissed the boys good bye in the pre-dawn and headed west. as i drove and sang loudly and watched the forest wake up in the sunshine, shedding its fog coat in glistening drops, i realized there were two things i was doing. one was simply, going home. but the other was, pilgrimage.

how did this come about? let me back up. a couple of weeks ago, two newcomers to the state asked me what my favorite place in the coast range was, and why. (actually, that's not completely true. only one asked me. the other just mentioned the coast range in an offhand way, which i took as sufficient invitation to expound on the best places. so really there was only one direct solicitation.) the 'where' answer came easy - cascade head. the 'why' answer - well, i had to think about that. and i realized there were two reasons why - one, because it's just a beautiful place; what i think of as the absolute reason. the other is more personal - a relative reason.

i arrive at the lower parking lot to the sight of the salmon river estuary emerging from the early-morning winter mist. ah, the salmon river. it might seem strange to love such a beleaguered, unspectacular river. but that river is the connecting tie, the binding cord running from the house of my childhood about 2 miles upstream - past the hatchery, where i spent bored hours watching the fry, where the rough, red-headed salmon returned to in all their fearsome, dying glory; running through fields and grazing horses; past my home 'town' - to this joining of river and ocean, at the base of the steep, grass-covered headland. no, it's no rogue river, or umpqua. there's no miles and miles of wilderness, or rapids, or much wild fish runs anymore. it simply starts in the coast range and powers through the forest downhill to the ocean, passing only trailer parks, lawns, blackberry vines, and abandoned buildings. but it feels somehow both accessible and familiar; knowable and lovable. this morning, there are birds calling through the mist, and the promise of sun coming in the diffuse light. and, best of all, not a soul in sight. eager to get into the woods, i turn away from the river, and head up the trail.

cascade head - long a place i associate with happy memories of my youth. was it totally familiar, this trail? did i recognize every step? no. in fact, i rarely use - or used - the lower trail. we almost always came from the forest service road on the top. partly that's because we weren't a real big hiking family, despite spending a fair bit of time in the woods. we definitely tended toward the 'hick' variety of backwoods oregonians, as opposed to the 'hippie' variety. the other is that back in the day, that road wasn't closed half the year. at least, not that i remember. it's possible that it was. we definitely had a local's view of cascade head and, in that utterly inexcusable yet endearing local way, probably never really realized there may exist rules to follow, or that they might also apply to us, and not just to people from portland. in fairness, my mother certainly would have followed rules, once made aware of them, but i'm not sure even she would think to seek them out. and my father - well, let's just point out that for fun, as a youth in butte, montana, he and his friends stole dynamite from mines and blew it up. clearly 'following rules' was for wimps.

in truth, i haven't been up here for years. a ridiculous number of years. and i've certainly had the chance. i've played tour guide for several groups in and around the area. and i always expound on how beautiful, how unique, how much i love cascade head - but i haven't come up here. it occurs to me now, walking through the quiet, that maybe, deep in some corner of my heart, i wanted a pilgrimage to this place and recognized that, for me, pilgrimages are best spent in solitude, not among a large chattering group. for once i don't want to share the memories i have of this place with anyone else, while i'm reliving them.

even though the trail itself isn't familiar, the forest itself is. it is beyond familiar; it is like a natural extension of my existence. the trees, the feel of the ground, the bird songs, the smell, the colors of green, grey, brilliant blue, and red; all so familiar it is almost difficult to think of them in parts, in pieces. it is like trying to imagine one single cell of your skin. it is hard to take apart; it just happens to be this thing you're wrapped in, not in any way separable from yourself or your existence. this is what being in the coast range forest feels like, to me. i expect this comfort, welcome it. i was craving it. part of me wants nothing more than to lie down in the moss, the way i used to as a kid, in the little chunk of siuslaw national forest that was right behind our house - that really was my backyard. but i'm also anxious to see the grasslands this time, and so i continue on.

the interest in the grasslands is new and different - and yet still connected to memory. last week i had to track down the grassland plant communities on cascade head. these aren't detailed in the forest service guides to plant communities in the coast range. so i dug out my plants book and started flipping through.

now, my amateur botanist enthusiast career started in grade school, when a terrific teacher taught me how to press, identify, and mount plants. of course i started with the obvious, pretty, showy bunch - the wildflowers. since then, my affection has been focused on trees. but an odd thing happened the other week as i looked through the book. there were some it seemed i could remember, quite clearly. then, i found a phd dissertation written in 1984 for OSU's botany department classifying plant communities in coastal grasslands in oregon. eureka! his classification species jived exactly with what i picked out from the plant book. although i hadn't realized it, i was paying attention in this place i loved so much, all those years ago. in fact looking at the illustrations brought back a flood of memories - the feel of the downy panicles against my palms in spring, the soft feel of the fresh spruce growth, the sunshine so readily felt in the open area, the sound of the waves rising from a thousand feet below. again, some secret little corner of my heart was paying attention, was speaking to me. that's when i knew i had to get back out there.

of course, on this sunday in february, bright sun notwithstanding, it's winter. there's no panicles for my palms, no spruce buds to rub against my cheeks. but it is just as beautiful as i remembered. the grassland is just as open, the view is just as spectacular, the cliff just as frightening. the way the estuary spreads out below you and you can truly appreciate how essential that ecosystem is - when all else you see is cliffs, hills, and trees, you can see how vital that shallow water, that sheltered area is. now that i've learned how rare these coastal grasslands are - and how cascade head was declared one of the best examples of them in the 80s, and was added to the UNESCO world biosphere reserve list - now that i've learned that it was so special to the tribes it was a vision quest site - it's even more beautiful. it is, in every way, an absolutely special place.

as to why i love it so much - that relative reason - well, it's one of the few places from growing up that i only have positive memories of. the thing about having a parent that sort of cut a drunken swath through a small town - and then died young - and being a person with the affliction of memory - means that most places in this, in my home area, in my comfort zone, are a mix of good and bad. in a very specific way. home - lots of both. north bank road - good and bad. otis, rose lodge, lincoln city, all the bars and places in there and in between, the beach, portland, grand ronde, seattle, airports, grocery stores, john day, eastern all those places each good memory is tempered by a sad one.

except - and this is so key - except cascade head. how did it escape such association? was it because we always went in the daytime morning, before the scotch got flowing? i even flirted with the thought that my memory might be faulty, and i should verify this with my mom - but good lord, why would i ever seek out such a truth, if it existed? why would i ever willingly pawn off this place of good memories for just yet another, run-of-the-mill, ho-hum boring standard ordinary place of good/bad memories?

there was a brief year or month or maybe just a day, when i was about 10, when my dad got a new camera and really loved to try it out. it was at the height of my wildflower pressing days. he actually made me a flower press - lord knows how he figured out how to do it, but he did. i can still remember the exact feel of the plywood cover, of the elastic straps and screws that bound together the layers of newspaper and blotter paper. in that rare moment, that confluence, of our interests, we got up before dawn one day - at least one day - and drove the old highway from otis to neskowin, through the national forest. stopping for pictures, stopping to collect wildflowers. he taught me how to use his camera, and i took this picture of a snag, and of foxglove. we ended up at the new highway, crossed it, and continued on the forest service road across the top of cascade head. i remember the sun, and the feel of the panicles on my palms. and i remember a good day, a spectacularly good day, just me and my dad, in a good place, in a spectacularly good place.

this sunday, up there, on the top, i feel like a kid again. my soul feels unweighted, my heart light. i relish the breeze, the solitude, the sounds of the waves and the birds. as i descend back down the trail, i stop briefly and tug out some hairs, and let them glide through the air. long ago, when i lived on the reservation, i was taught about traditional uses of wild plants by a tribal elder. she taught us that every time we munched on wild onions, dug up camas bulbs, or chewed up rattlesnake-plantain leaves for a poultice, we should leave something behind in thanks. a bit of tobacco usually was the choice. i don't have tobacco with me these days. but a bit of hair will do, too. something to acknowledge your taking, something to leave behind. i may not have taken any plants today - i know, now, not to gather wildflowers in protected areas. i'm a little better at following the rules. but i sure took something from that place. i took a little bandage for my heart. i plugged up a tiny hole with sunshine, bird song, and good memories. i paid homage to the ocean, to the trees, even to the grass for the first time, and to the river that connected it all. like any pilgrim i went seeking something, and found it.