My brain races when I’m on the trail by myself, shooting off in different directions, circling some topics for hours while discarding others immediately, sometimes letting them get away for good and sometimes picking them up a few miles later. I often find myself narrating blog posts directly from my thought loops while I hike, thinking through concepts and ordering the words in my sentences as if they were going to flow directly from my brain onto the screen. I recently read an interview with Eileen Myles where she describes something similar:
I’ve always felt like as a poet, my studio is my head. Even if I have a very nice writing room in my life, it’s still where it happens… Like, I’ll be on the beach with my dog in 1996, and I’ll just be like watching my dog walk around the beach, and you just start to have all these thoughts… I’ve basically written a whole book about this on some level. You basically start to have all these thoughts, like you start captioning your dog all the time.
I wonder if everyone does this while hiking or if it’s just something writers will identify with. What does everyone else do with all those whirling thoughts? I can’t imagine. (I’m not just saying that – I really can’t imagine living a life where I’m not constantly trying to arrange my inner dialogue into a mess of sentences that I can write down and share with others. Huh.)
All of that is to say, this is a somewhat untraditional trip report of my most recent hike. I’ll be focusing less on the trail conditions and what you should do at the 3 mile marker (spoiler: there is no 3 mile marker) and more on the things my brain did on the trail. If this sounds interesting to you, maybe you will like this post! If you’d rather just read a short and dirty trip report for Hamilton Mountain, I’d suggest reading this instead.
No part of me wanted to go hiking when I woke up last Tuesday. I’ve been really sedentary this past month; first I was lazy, then I hurt my knee, then it started raining every day, then I got a cold…suddenly it had been a month since my last hike and almost six weeks since my last run. I could feel it. Getting soft is the last thing I should be doing this winter – the exact opposite is the goal, actually – so I promised myself that on my next day off I would haul my ass out into the wilderness and do the thing I needed to do: hike.
I had asked Taylor for a recommendation because I want to start intentionally doing more “conditioning” hikes so I can get stronger and more, well, conditioned, and she has so much knowledge about local hikes and building endurance after taking her Mazama class. I feel really lucky that so many of my friends are so deeply entrenched in spending time outdoors, and that everyone has their own special skill set and their own meaningful relationship with Mother Nature. Farming, biking, mountaineering, researching frogs, maintaining trails, teaching kids survival skills, fighting forest fires, backpacking, ultralight hiking…that list barely scratches the surface of all the ways in which my friends spend time outdoors. How lucky I am that we all share our knowledge with each other, that we all care about spending our time this way, that we all are able to soak up so much of what Oregon has to offer! I feel very cheesy as I conclude this paragraph, but truly, I never imagined that this could be my life and now that it is I am grateful and I want to talk about it!
Tay suggested Hamilton Mountain, and it sounded like just what I was looking for. Not too long and not so much of a climb that it would kill me, but certainly quite enough miles and elevation gain to kick my ass. At 7.5 miles and 2100′ elevation gain, it definitely fit the criteria of being a “conditioning” hike, though its arguably one of the “easiest” conditioning hikes in the area. I checked Jenny’s blog to see if she had a write up of it (as I do before I go on any hike in the PNW area – nine times out of ten, Jenny has hiked it and written about it beautifully and helpfully, so I’ve taken to checking her blog before I look at any of the more generic trail journals out there) and of course she did, confirming what I hoped to be true:
It had been a couple of months since I’d done a “difficult” trail, so I turned to the one I always turn to to get my stamina and muscles back in gear, Hamilton Mountain…The 1.1 mile and 600 feet elevation gain up past Hardy Falls to Rodney Falls was reassuring. The mountain was not going to kill me, just spank me a little too hard.
In spite of being excited about tackling this trail leading up to Tuesday morning, I woke up completely uninterested in climbing a mountain. I’d had a really depressing phone conversation with my brother the day before, and I just felt super sad. The universe has felt strange recently; I’m so relieved that tonight marks a new moon, a possible chance to hit the “reset” button on my own energy and the energy I’ve been wading through recently. Scorpio season always unmoors me.
I was initially doubtful that I would actually make it out to the Gorge, but I kept reminding myself how shitty I would feel if I didn’t follow through on my promise to hike. I’ve been working a lot more than I am used to lately, which means I have less flexibility about when I have a whole day to dedicate to a hike. I tried to emphasize this to my less than thrilled self as I reluctantly got myself ready to go, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it was the thought of posting some beautiful photos to Instagram once the hike was over that really got me moving. Is it fucked up that blasting a gorgeous view on my social media page is the impetus I need to get the fuck out there when my brain is saying no no no to a hike? Sure, maybe. But did it get me out the door? It sure did. And hey, on a day when I’d rather stay in my pajamas under the covers and feel sorry for myself all day, I’ll take what I can get.
After a (not so) quick stop to get gas, grab overpriced snacks at New Seasons (note to self: stop buying large bags of chips and pretending they will “last you the whole week” when you know full well you will eat the entire bag, no matter how large, in one sitting and then feel very ill), and borrow Alley’s headlamp (because I couldn’t find my own and what with getting such a late start and the sun setting so much earlier I was fearful I may end up hiking in the dark), I was off! As I drove toward Washington on the slick freeway I said a quick prayer asking the clouds to hold off on any heavy rain. Hiking in bad weather is something one has to get used to if you live in the Pacific Northwest and intend to go outdoors more than two months of the year, but I didn’t think my wimpy disposition could handle a full on rain storm that day. I listened to Buffering the Vampire Slayer the whole way there and by the time I parked at the trailhead I felt almost okay, like at least I knew I could do this hike (probably).
For some reason I battled a lot of anxiety throughout the entirety of this trail, most of it centered on my ability or perceived lack thereof. I have been dealing with heightened anxiety in general recently, but usually I am able to let go of that when I’m hiking; it was somewhat disconcerting to be second-guessing myself and panicking on the trail about the trail.
I have been noticing that the more I learn about hiking and the more I immerse myself in hiking culture, the more I realize I don’t know or have yet to learn, and I think the realization of that is what is moving me toward feeling unsure on the trail. It’s weird because of course I want to keep learning and it’s actually quite necessary to continue doing so, but at the same time it was almost easier when I was naive and didn’t know what I didn’t know.
When I first began hiking I didn’t know anything, so I probably made some stupid decisions but because I always turned out alright, I didn’t panic. I never had a flashlight or a compass or a paper map, but I didn’t really think about the kind of scenario wherein I would need any of those things, and because I never did end up needing them I didn’t learn my lesson about why they’re important to carry. Do you know what I mean? Now I am learning so much, so quickly: Cotton kills. You need to set the delineation correctly on your compass in order for it to be any use to you when reading a map. It’s a good idea to carry tape in your first aid kit because you can’t really improvise it out of anything else and if you twist your ankle badly you’re going to want to tape it up.
And it’s good, it’s very good to be learning those things, but it also reminds me that there is so much more I have yet to learn. And that makes me feel more anxious when I hit the trail, because what if my mom’s worst fears are right, what if I actually have no business tromping through the woods with just my city girl smarts to aid me, what if I get lost or fall and break my ankle or or or… Maybe now you see what I mean.
In addition to that I am just a generally fearful person (which I hate about myself and am always actively looking for ways to change that inclination) and while I am usually able to turn that part of my brain off as well when I’m on the trail, on this particular hike I was focusing on all sorts of nature-specific scary stories about men hurting women in the woods, and damn, I was just scaring myself out of my goddamn mind.
Oh, and on top of all that: I must’ve been way more out of shape than I originally anticipated, because Hamilton Mountain? It did more than “just spank me a little too hard.”
The first half of the hike is essentially all up-hill, so I spent a long while huffing and puffing, using my hiking poles to help haul my body up up up. I saw very few people all day (seven total, plus two dogs) which usually feels like a blessing but on a day when I’m feeling uncertain about every step I take (every move I make…) it felt…stressful. I am so unused to hiking feeling stressful that I didn’t know what to make of the feeling. I allowed myself to wallow a little bit, feel sad that I was feeling so inept on the trail, feel sad that a hike of similar difficulty to one I did with ease in Glacier at the end of August was seriously kicking my ass, feel sad about old friendships that have gone sour, feel sad that Trump is running for president and people who allegedly love me are planning to vote for him… I just let myself feel sad. And then, only about 2 miles in, as I stopped to catch my breath and look out at the amazing fog-filled view and shove a few bite-size salami circles into my mouth, I told myself to get it together and cheer the fuck up.
I took myself very sternly by the shoulders and I said, Self, what the actual fuck. You are alive! It is a Tuesday and you are hiking up a mountain! Your cell phone is on airplane mode and the rain is holding off and the fog is so goddamn beautiful you may as well be in Southern Oregon! You can breath! You have salami bites! You have water! You have sweet queer-flagging gaiters that make you grin every time you look down! You will make it up this mountain today and slowly slowly you will get back to a place where you can take on a hike of this level with ease! You will mend friendships and you will burn bridges and you will march on through this messy complicated gorgeous thing we call life and you will be fine or you won’t be but either way at this very moment you are here, you are hiking up a goddamn mountain, and it is beautiful so maybe you could just try to be happy about it, okay?!?!
And wouldn’t you know it, I give a damn good pep talk. Cause my brain totally listened. I said a small prayer and sent that energy out into the universe and I ended it with a very earnest “so say we all” which I didn’t know I was going to say until the words tumbled out of my mouth, and then I laughed at myself for being such a nerdy fangirl for Battlestar Galactica, and then I decided I will conclude all my prayers and spells with “so say we all” from now on, and then I kept hiking, because there was nothing else left to do.
I had read that the view at the top of Hamilton Mountain is not as impressive as some of the other hikes in the Gorge, especially because it’s somewhat obstructed by brush. This is true. But I had also read that once you get to the T-junction that signifies the mountain summit you will turn left and continue down-ish, for about 1 mile, and then you will find the most stunning saddle where you will have a much better view and where, if it’s not too windy, you should sit down and rest and eat lunch and congratulate yourself for being a badass since you just climbed approximately 2000′ in just over 3 miles. This is also true.
I rolled my ankle twice on the way down. The ol’ “rolled ankle” is my Injury Curse, the one that happens all the time to me, the one that I’ve been dealing with since I was a kid. “People either have a great arch and weak ankles, or no flexibility and real strong ankles,” my terrifying ex-Rockette 70-something ballet teacher once said to me, when I auditioned to dance on pointe. “You have a great arch.” I took it as a subtle sign from the universe, reminding me that after taking a 2 day, 16 hour wilderness first-aid course, I should know better than to leave the house without a first-aid kit (or at the very least, some tape). My right knee also started bothering me quite a bit on the descent, which bummed me out in spite of my aggressive attempts to stay cheery. I first felt this pain after some long hikes at Glacier in August, and it has popped up after various runs since then. I think (hope) the knee pain is related to not stretching properly and also not having enough strength in certain muscles, so hopefully it’s a somewhat easy fix and not a full-blown injury, but I’m paranoid about hurting myself and not getting to do the hikes I want to do, so it was disheartening to feel pain again after resting my knee for more than two weeks.
Whether it was the pain I felt in my ankle and my knee or just the fact that the hike down on this trail is pretty monotonous, I found myself getting bored near the end and wishing I could speed up the final two miles and be back in my car, listening to queer women discuss Buffy and eating a whole bag of BBQ chips. That’s also an unfamiliar feeling: I usually wish I could stretch a day hike into infinity. I tried to spin it positively and reasoned that it’s good to be realistic about hiking rather than building it up as a fantasy sport wherein I am always calm and at peace and happy. Carrot once wrote that thru-hiking is essentially an exercise in always being uncomfortable in some way but wanting to be hiking anyway (she said it more eloquently and I wish I could find the exact blog post she wrote it in so I could link to it – if anyone knows the one I’m referring to, let me know!). I tried to think of it like that. Yes my ankle hurt and yes my knee was concerning me and yes the abandoned road that makes up the last portion of the hike was boring (in the way that eventually trees filled with bright yellow leaves and the smell of wet air and the rustling of the wind all around you eventually get, you know, boring – god I sound like an asshole) but I still would’ve rather been on the trail than anywhere else last Tuesday.
I got back to my car eventually and texted my mom and Alley to let them know I was safe. I consulted my Strava which informed me that the whole hike had taken me 5 hours but I’d only been actually moving for 3.5 hours, which means I took 1.5 hours worth of breaks collectively, which for some reason made me laugh a lot. I guess all those two minute “pant until I can catch my breath and determine that I’m going the right way in this somewhat confusing rocky portion of the trail” breaks really add up!
I posted a photo on Instagram. I ate some potato chips. I took stock of my feelings: did I feel better or worse than I did when I woke up? I felt better.
Then I turned on the car and drove back to Portland.