Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail - Cheryl Strayed (2012)
Part V. BOX OF RAIN
19. THE DREAM OF A COMMON LANGUAGE
The next morning the sky was clear blue, the sun shimmering on Olallie Lake, views of Mount Jefferson framed perfectly to the south and Olallie Butte to the north. I sat on one of the picnic tables near the ranger station, packing Monster for the final stretch of my hike. The Three Young Bucks had left at dawn, in a hurry to reach Canada before the High Cascades of Washington were snowed in, but I wasn’t going that far. I could take my time.
Guy appeared with a box in his hands, sober now, breaking me out of my contemplative trance. “I’m glad I caught you before you left. This just came,” he said.
I took the box from him and glanced at the return address. It was from my friend Gretchen. “Thanks for everything,” I said to Guy as he walked away. “For the drinks the other night and the hospitality.”
“Stay safe out there,” he said, and disappeared around the corner of the building. I ripped open the box and gasped when I saw what was inside: a dozen fancy chocolates in shiny twisted wrappers and a bottle of red wine. I ate some chocolate immediately while pondering the wine. Much as I wanted to open it that night on the trail, I wasn’t willing to lug the empty bottle all the way to Timberline Lodge. I packed up the last of my things, strapped on Monster, picked up the wine and the empty box, and began to walk to the ranger station.
“Cheryl!” a voice boomed, and I turned.
“There you are! There you are! I caught you! I caught you!” shouted a man as he came at me. I was so startled, I dropped the box on the grass as the man shook his fists in the air and let out a joyous hoot that I recognized but couldn’t place. He was young and bearded and golden, different and yet the same as the last time I’d seen him. “Cheryl!” he yelled again as he practically tackled me into an embrace.
It was as if time moved in slow motion from the moment that I didn’t know who he was to the moment that I did know, but I couldn’t take it into my consciousness until he had me all the way in his arms and I yelled, “DOUG!”
“Doug, Doug, Doug!” I kept saying.
“Cheryl, Cheryl, Cheryl!” he said to me.
Then we went silent and stepped back and looked at each other.
“You’ve lost weight,” he said.
“So have you,” I said.
“You’re all broken in now,” he said.
“I know! So are you.”
“I have a beard,” he said, tugging on it. “I have so much to tell you.”
“Me too! Where’s Tom?”
“He’s a few miles back. He’ll catch up later.”
“Did you make it through the snow?” I asked.
“We did some, but it got to be too intense and we came down and ended up bypassing.”
I shook my head, still shocked he was standing there. I told him about Greg getting off the trail and asked him about Albert and Matt.
“I haven’t heard anything about them since we saw them last.” He looked at me and smiled, his eyes sparkling to life. “We read your notes in the register all summer long. They motivated us to crank. We wanted to catch up to you.”
“I was just leaving now,” I said. I bent to retrieve the empty box I’d dropped in the excitement. “Another minute and I’d have been gone and who knows if you’d have caught me.”
“I’d have caught you,” he said, and laughed in that golden boy way that I remembered so vividly, though it was altered now too. He was grittier than he’d been before, slightly more shaken, as if he’d aged a few years in the past months. “You want to hang out while I organize my things and we can leave together?”
“Sure,” I said without hesitation. “I’ve got to hike those last days before I get into Cascade Locks alone—you know, just to finish like I started—but let’s hike together to Timberline Lodge.”
“Holy shit, Cheryl.” He pulled me in for another hug. “I can’t believe we’re here together. Hey, you still have that black feather I gave you?” He reached to touch its ragged edge.
“It was my good luck charm,” I said.
“What’s with the wine?” he asked, pointing to the bottle in my hand.
“I’m going to give it to the ranger,” I replied, lifting it high. “I don’t want to carry it all the way to Timberline.”
“Are you insane?” Doug asked. “Give me that bottle.”
We opened it that night at our camp near the Warm Springs River with the corkscrew on my Swiss army knife. The day had warmed into the low seventies, but the evening was cool, the crisp edge of summer turning to autumn everywhere around us. The leaves on the trees had thinned almost undetectably; the tall stalks of wildflowers bent down onto themselves, plumped with rot. Doug and I built a fire as our dinners cooked and then sat eating from our pots and passing the wine back and forth, drinking straight from the bottle since neither of us had a cup. The wine and the fire and being in Doug’s company again after all this time felt like a rite of passage, like a ceremonial marking of the end of my journey.
After a while, we each turned abruptly toward the darkness, hearing the yip of coyotes more near than far.
“That sound always makes my hair stand on end,” Doug said. He took a sip from the bottle and handed it to me. “This wine’s really good.”
“It is,” I agreed, and took a swig. “I heard coyotes a lot this summer,” I said.
“And you weren’t afraid, right? Isn’t that what you told yourself?”
“It is what I told myself,” I said. “Except every once in while,” I added. “When I was.”
“Me too.” He reached over and rested his hand on my shoulder and I put my hand on his and squeezed it. He felt like a brother of mine, but not at all like my actual brother. He seemed like someone I’d always know even if I never saw him again.
When we were done with the wine, I went to Monster and pulled out the ziplock bag that held my books. “You need something to read?” I asked Doug, holding The Ten Thousand Things up to him, but he shook his head. I’d finished it a few days before, though I hadn’t been able to burn it because of the rain. Unlike most of the other books I’d read on my hike, I’d already read The Ten Thousand Things when I’d packed it into my resupply box months before. A densely lyrical novel set on the Moluccan Islands in Indonesia, it had been written in Dutch and published to critical acclaim in 1955, but mostly forgotten now. I’d never met anyone who’d read the book, aside from the college writing professor who’d assigned it to me in the fiction workshop I was enrolled in when my mother got sick. The title hadn’t been lost on me as I’d sat dutifully reading it in my mother’s hospital room, attempting to shut out my fear and sorrow by forcing my mind to focus on passages I hoped to refer to in the following week’s class discussion, but it was useless. I couldn’t think of anything but my mom. Besides, I already knew about the ten thousand things. They were all the named and unnamed things in the world and together they added up to less than how much my mother loved me. And me her. So when I was packing for the PCT, I’d decided to give the book another chance. I hadn’t had any trouble focusing this time. From the very first page, I understood. Each of Dermoût’s sentences came at me like a soft knowing dagger, depicting a far-off land that felt to me like the blood of all the places I used to love.
“I think I’m going to turn in,” said Doug, holding the empty bottle of wine. “Tom’ll probably catch up to us tomorrow.”
“I’ll put the fire out,” I said.
When he was gone, I ripped the pages of The Ten Thousand Things from their gummy paperback binding and set them into the fire in thin clumps, prodding them with a stick until they burned. As I stared at the flames, I thought about Eddie, the same as I did just about every time I sat by a fire. It had been he who’d taught me how to build one. Eddie was the one who’d taken me camping the first time. He’d shown me how to pitch a tent and tie a knot in a rope. From him, I’d learned how to open a can with a jackknife and paddle a canoe and skip a rock on the surface of a lake. In the three years after he fell in love with my mother, he’d taken us camping and canoeing along the Minnesota and St. Croix and Namekagon rivers practically every weekend from June to September, and after we’d moved north onto the land my family had bought with the proceeds from his broken back, he’d taught me even more about the woods.
There’s no way to know what makes one thing happen and not another. What leads to what. What destroys what. What causes what to flourish or die or take another course. But I was pretty certain as I sat there that night that if it hadn’t been for Eddie, I wouldn’t have found myself on the PCT. And though it was true that everything I felt for him sat like a boulder in my throat, this realization made the boulder sit ever so much lighter. He hadn’t loved me well in the end, but he’d loved me well when it mattered.
When The Ten Thousand Things had turned to ash, I pulled out the other book in my ziplock bag. It was The Dream of a Common Language. I’d carried it all this way, though I hadn’t opened it since that first night on the trail. I hadn’t needed to. I knew what it said. Its lines had run all summer through the mix-tape radio station in my head, fragments from various poems or sometimes the title of the book itself, which was also a line from a poem: the dream of a common language. I opened the book and paged through it, leaning forward so I could see the words by the firelight. I read a line or two from a dozen or so of the poems, each of them so familiar they gave me a strange sort of comfort. I’d chanted those lines silently through the days while I hiked. Often, I didn’t know exactly what they meant, yet there was another way in which I knew their meaning entirely, as if it were all before me and yet out of my grasp, their meaning like a fish just beneath the surface of the water that I tried to catch with my bare hands—so close and present and belonging to me—until I reached for it and it flashed away.
I closed the book and looked at its beige cover. There was no reason not to burn this book too.
Instead, I only hugged it to my chest.
We reached Timberline Lodge a couple of days later. By then it wasn’t just Doug and me. Tom had caught up to us, and we’d also been joined by two women—a twenty-something ex-couple who were hiking Oregon and a small section of Washington. The five of us hiked together in duos and trios of various formations, or sometimes all of us in a row, making a leisurely party of it, the vibe festive because of our numbers and the cool sunny days. On our long breaks we played hacky sack and skinny-dipped in an icy-cold lake, incited the wrath of a handful of hornets and then ran from them while we laughed and screamed. By the time we reached Timberline Lodge 6,000 feet up on the south flank of Mount Hood, we were like a tribe, bonded in that way I imagined kids felt when they spent a week together at summer camp.
It was midafternoon when we arrived. In the lounge the five of us took over a pair of couches that faced each other across a low wooden table and ordered terribly expensive sandwiches, then afterwards sipped coffees spiked with Baileys while we played poker and rummy five hundred with a deck of cards we borrowed from the bartender. The slope of Mount Hood rose above us just outside the lodge’s windows. At 11,240 feet, it’s Oregon’s highest mountain—a volcano like all the others I’d passed since I entered the Cascade Range south of Lassen Peak way back in July—but this, the last of the major mountains I’d traverse on my hike, felt like the most important, and not only because I was sitting on its very haunches. The sight of it had become familiar to me, its imposing grandeur visible from Portland on clear days. Once I reached Mount Hood I realized I felt ever so slightly like I was home. Portland—where I’d never technically lived, in spite of all that had happened in the eight or nine months I’d spent there over the past two years—was only sixty miles away.
From afar, the sight of Mount Hood had never failed to take my breath away, but up close it was different, the way everything is. It was less coolly majestic, at once more ordinary and more immeasurable in its gritty authority. The landscape outside the north windows of the lodge was not the glistening white peak one sees from miles away, but a grayish and slightly barren slope dotted with a few scraggly stands of pines and a smattering of lupine and asters that grew among the rocks. The natural landscape was punctuated by a ski lift that led to the crusty swath of snow farther up. I was happy to be protected from the mountain for a time, ensconced inside the glorious lodge, a wonderland in the rough. It’s a grand stone-and-wood structure that was hand-hewn by Works Progress Administration workers in the mid-1930s. Everything about the place has a story. The art on the walls, the architecture of the building, the handwoven fabrics that cover the furniture—each piece carefully crafted to reflect the history, culture, and natural resources of the Pacific Northwest.
I excused myself from the others and walked slowly through the lodge, then stepped out onto a wide south-facing patio. It was a clear, sunny day and I could see for more than a hundred miles. The view included so many of the mountains I’d hiked past—two of the Three Sisters and Mount Jefferson and Broken Finger.
Hop, skip, spin, done, I thought. I was here. I was almost there. But I wasn’t done. I still had fifty miles to walk before I reached the Bridge of the Gods.
The next morning I said goodbye to Doug and Tom and the two women and I hiked away alone, climbing up the short steep path that went from the lodge to the PCT. I passed under the ski lift and edged my way north and west around the shoulder of Mount Hood on a trail of what seemed to be demolished rock, worn down by the harsh winters into a pebbly sand. By the time I crossed into the Mount Hood Wilderness twenty minutes later, I had entered the forest again and I felt the silence descend on me.
It felt good to be alone. It felt spectacular. It was the middle of September, but the sun was warm and bright, the sky bluer than ever. The trail opened up into miles-wide views and then closed around me into dense woods before opening back up again. I walked for ten miles without pause, crossed the Sandy River, and stopped to sit on a small flat shelf looking over it from the other side. Nearly all the pages of The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 2: Oregon and Washington were gone by now. What was left of my guidebook was folded into the pocket of my shorts. I took out the pages and read them again, letting myself go all the way to the end. I was thrilled by the prospect of reaching Cascade Locks and also saddened by it. I didn’t know how living outdoors and sleeping on the ground in a tent each night and walking alone through the wilderness all day almost every day had come to feel like my normal life, but it had. It was the idea of not doing it that scared me.
I went to the river and squatted down and splashed my face. It was narrow and shallow here, so late in the summer and so high up, barely bigger than a stream. Where was my mother? I wondered. I’d carried her so long, staggering beneath her weight.
On the other side of the river, I let myself think.
And something inside of me released.
In the days that followed, I passed Ramona Falls and skirted in and out of the Columbia Wilderness. I caught views of Mounts St. Helens and Rainier and Adams far to the north. I reached Wahtum Lake and turned off the PCT and onto the alternate route the authors of my guidebook recommended, which would lead me down to Eagle Creek and into the Columbia River gorge and eventually to the river itself that ran alongside the town of Cascade Locks.
Down, down, down I went on that last full day of hiking, descending four thousand feet in just over sixteen miles, the creeks and streams and trailside seeps I crossed and paralleled going down and down too. I could feel the river pulling me like a great magnet below and to the north. I could feel myself coming to the end of things. I stopped to spend the night on the banks of Eagle Creek. It was five o’clock and I was only six miles away from Cascade Locks. I could have been in town by dark, but I didn’t want to finish my trip that way. I wanted to take my time, to see the river and the Bridge of the Gods in the bright light of day.
That evening I sat next to Eagle Creek watching the water rush over the rocks. My feet were killing me from the long descent. Even after all this way, with my body now stronger than it had ever been and would likely ever be, hiking on the PCT still hurt. New blisters had formed on my toes in places that had gone soft from the relatively few extreme descents throughout Oregon. I put my fingers delicately to them, soothing them with my touch. Another toenail looked like it was finally going to come off. I gave it a gentle tug and it was in my hand, my sixth. I had only four intact toenails left.
The PCT and I weren’t tied anymore. The score was 4-6, advantage trail.
I slept on my tarp, not wanting to shelter myself on that last night, and woke before dawn to watch the sun rise over Mount Hood. It was really over, I thought. There was no way to go back, to make it stay. There was never that. I sat for a long while, letting the light fill the sky, letting it expand and reach down into the trees. I closed my eyes and listened hard to Eagle Creek.
It was running to the Columbia River, like me.
I seemed to float the four miles to the little parking area near the head of the Eagle Creek Trail, buoyed by a pure, unadulterated emotion that can only be described as joy. I strolled through the mostly empty parking lot and passed the restrooms, then followed another trail that would take me the two miles into Cascade Locks. The trail turned sharply to the right, and before me was the Columbia River, visible through the chain-link fence that bordered the trail to set it off from Interstate 84 just below. I stopped and grasped the fence and stared. It seemed like a miracle that I finally had the river in my sights, as if a newborn baby had just slipped finally into my palms after a long labor. That glimmering dark water was more beautiful than anything I’d imagined during all those miles I’d hiked to reach it.
I walked east along a lush green corridor, the roadbed of the long-abandoned Columbia River Highway, which had been made into a trail. I could see patches of concrete in places, but the road had mostly been reclaimed by the moss that grew along the rocks at the road’s edge, the trees that hung heavy and low over it, the spiders who’d spun webs that crossed its expanse. I walked through the spiderwebs, feeling them like magic on my face, pulling them out of my hair. I could hear but not see the rush of automobiles on the interstate to my left, which ran between the river and me, the ordinary sound of them, a great whooshing whine and hum.
When I emerged from the forest, I was in Cascade Locks, which unlike so many towns on the trail was an actual town, with a population of a little more than a thousand. It was Friday morning and I could feel the Friday morningness emanating from the houses I passed. I walked beneath the freeway and wended my way along the streets with my ski pole clicking against the pavement, my heart racing when the bridge came into view. It’s an elegant steel truss cantilever, named for a natural bridge that was formed by a major landslide approximately three hundred years ago that had temporarily dammed the Columbia River. The local Native Americans had called it the Bridge of the Gods. The human-made structure that took its name spans the Columbia for a little more than a third of a mile, connecting Oregon to Washington, the towns of Cascade Locks and Stevenson on either side. There’s a tollbooth on the Oregon side and when I reached it the woman who worked inside told me I could cross the bridge, no charge.
“I’m not crossing,” I said. “I only want to touch it.” I walked along the shoulder of the road until I reached the concrete stanchion of the bridge, put my hand on it, and looked down at the Columbia River flowing beneath me. It’s the largest river in the Pacific Northwest and the fourth largest in the nation. Native Americans have lived on the river for thousands of years, sustained by its once-bountiful salmon for most of them. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had paddled down the Columbia in dugout canoes on their famous expedition in 1805. One hundred and ninety years later, two days before my twenty-seventh birthday, here I was.
I had arrived. I’d done it. It seemed like such a small thing and such a tremendous thing at once, like a secret I’d always tell myself, though I didn’t know the meaning of it just yet. I stood there for several minutes, cars and trucks going past me, feeling like I’d cry, though I didn’t.
Weeks before, I’d heard on the trail grapevine that once I reached Cascade Locks I had to go to the East Wind Drive-In for one of their famously large ice-cream cones. For that reason, I’d saved a couple of dollars when I was at Timberline Lodge. I left the bridge and made my way along a busy street that ran parallel to the river and the interstate; the road and much of the town were sandwiched between the two. It was still morning and the drive-in wasn’t open yet, so I sat on the little white wooden bench in front with Monster by my side.
I would be in Portland later that day. It was only forty-five miles away, to the west. I’d sleep on my old futon beneath a roof. I’d unpack my CDs and stereo and listen to any song I liked. I’d wear my black lace bra and underwear and blue jeans. I’d consume all the amazing foods and drinks that could be had. I’d drive my truck anywhere I wanted to go. I’d set up my computer and write my novel. I’d take the boxes of books I’d brought with me from Minnesota and sell them the next day at Powell’s, so I’d have some cash. I’d have a yard sale to see me through until I got a job. I’d set out my thrift store dresses and miniature binoculars and foldable saw on the grass and get for them anything I could. The thought of it all astounded me.
“We’re ready for you,” a woman called, poking her head out of the sliding window that fronted the drive-in.
I ordered a chocolate-vanilla twist cone; a few moments later she handed it to me and took my two dollars and gave me two dimes in change. It was the last money I had in the world. Twenty cents. I sat on the white bench and ate every bit of my cone and then watched the cars again. I was the only customer at the drive-in until a BMW pulled up and a young man in a business suit got out.
“Hi,” he said to me as he passed. He was about my age, his hair gelled back, his shoes impeccable. Once he had his cone, he returned to stand near me.
“Looks like you’ve been backpacking.”
“Yes. On the Pacific Crest Trail. I walked over eleven hundred miles,” I said, too excited to contain myself. “I just finished my trip this morning.”
I nodded and laughed.
“That’s incredible. I’ve always wanted to do something like that. A big journey.”
“You could. You should. Believe me, if I can do this, anyone can.”
“I can’t get the time off of work—I’m an attorney,” he said. He tossed the uneaten half of his cone into the garbage can and wiped his hands on a napkin. “What are you going to do now?”
“Go to Portland. I’m going to live there awhile.”
“I live there too. I’m on my way there now if you want a ride. I’d be happy to drop you off wherever you’d like.”
“Thanks,” I said. “But I want to stay here for a while. Just to take it all in.”
He pulled a business card from his wallet and handed it to me. “Give me a call once you settle in. I’d love to take you out to lunch and hear more about your trip.”
“Okay,” I said, looking at the card. It was white with blue embossed letters, a relic from another world.
“It was an honor to meet you at this momentous juncture,” he said.
“Nice to meet you too,” I said, shaking his hand.
After he drove away, I leaned my head back and closed my eyes against the sun as the tears I’d expected earlier at the bridge began to seep from my eyes. Thank you, I thought over and over again. Thank you. Not just for the long walk, but for everything I could feel finally gathered up inside of me; for everything the trail had taught me and everything I couldn’t yet know, though I felt it somehow already contained within me. How I’d never see the man in the BMW again, but how in four years I’d cross the Bridge of the Gods with another man and marry him in a spot almost visible from where I now sat. How in nine years that man and I would have a son named Carver, and a year and a half after that, a daughter named Bobbi. How in fifteen years I’d bring my family to this same white bench and the four of us would eat ice-cream cones while I told them the story of the time I’d been here once before, when I’d finished walking a long way on something called the Pacific Crest Trail. And how it would be only then that the meaning of my hike would unfold inside of me, the secret I’d always told myself finally revealed.
Which would bring me to this telling.
I didn’t know how I’d reach back through the years and look for and find some of the people I’d met on the trail and that I’d look for and not find others. Or how in one case I’d find something I didn’t expect: an obituary. Doug’s. I didn’t know I’d read that he’d died nine years after we’d said goodbye on the PCT—killed in a kite-sailing accident in New Zealand. Or how, after I’d cried remembering what a golden boy he’d been, I’d go to the farthest corner of my basement, to the place where Monster hung on a pair of rusty nails, and I’d see that the raven feather Doug had given me was broken and frayed now, but still there—wedged into my pack’s frame, where I placed it years ago.
It was all unknown to me then, as I sat on that white bench on the day I finished my hike. Everything except the fact that I didn’t have to know. That it was enough to trust that what I’d done was true. To understand its meaning without yet being able to say precisely what it was, like all those lines from The Dream of a Common Language that had run through my nights and days. To believe that I didn’t need to reach with my bare hands anymore. To know that seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water was enough. That it was everything. It was my life—like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me.
How wild it was, to let it be.