All things considered, this isn’t too bad. My face is turned to the sun, my back protected from the wind by the boulder I’m leaning against, the Smith Rock basalt pressing a new kind of topography into the skin on my back through the thin shell of windbreaker. Crawling out from the river, a sodden, dripping girl on the bank, I thought—surely this isn’t good, surely this will dampen our spirits. But here, surveying the lower Gorge from my perch, things don’t look so bad at all. Leaving Portland was a chaotic affair—unusual for us, as we are normally a well-oiled machine when it comes to this kind of thing. Nearly every weekend in the summer we go through the ritual—sleeping bags, tent sausages for dinner and chips for the road—we are eager to set off into sunset on Friday afternoons, impatient for the smoky burn of campfires and cold nights outside, daylight hours punctuated by bird calls and elevation gains rather than passing cars and the noise of our neighbors. It’s the first weekend this spring that looks even remotely promising weather-wise, so after a late night on Friday we headed out of town. The realization hits me when we’re already in Gresham—my harness is wedged into the backseat of my car. Sitting in the passenger seat of Darren’s this does me no good—we turn around, fish it out of GG, and head back out again.
Forest envelops us into its arms of green as we make our way up Hood—the drive so familiar, now, that landmarks are more like old friends. There, a farmhouse we both love, here the start of the national forest, there, a dahlia stand Rachelle and I discovered, here, my favorite view of reaching farmland racing faster than the car to the foot of the mountains—Bachelor, the Sisters, Jefferson, and Three-Fingered Jack.
I know them by heart, their names a talisman I roll around my mouth for comfort, for courage, for a return to self. Those jagged peaks, reaching for the sky, ground me like no flat horizon line can.
For all the drive that is familiar, Smith is always a surprise—the golden rock rising steeply from the earth, like a glorious declaration, a testament to its volatile past and the endurance of stone. It’s never until you’re in it that you realize quite how magnificent it is, all that height, those colliding slides of cooled magma. A miracle in rock, a quiet and fierce fire burning in the heart of each wall.
In our eagerness to leave the crowds behind we race headlong into another pack of people on the North Rim, dropping through a notch to get to the bottom and get a climb in. But the belay area is narrow and crowded, a tour group wedged around each boulder, all of them eager to pet our rather skittish puppy (he—on the leash for now, is jerking wildly away from every sticky hand that reaches for him) and so we leave there too, in a disgruntled rush that so many people would also go to the places we want to go, their junk shows interrupting ours.
Early afternoon has settled in, the high noon bright of the sun has given way—just a little—to a gentler angle, less of a blinding glare. Clouds race across the sky as we cross out from underneath the Rim and into an enormous boulder field, their movement a shadow dance across the rocks. We are not sure of the way, or where we are going—but I am delirious in my joy, dazzled by my good fortune, to be in this place with a blue sky overhead and company I wouldn’t trade the whole world for. One sweet, intrepid puppy, bravely extending his paws to leap onto the next boulder, my good honest man whose trail I will always follow, and where I lead he goes too.
We hop from rock to rock, our figures dwarfed by the stature of this landscape, down towards the river. Already it is more peaceful—quieter, the energy around us less frenetic—than in the parking lot or at the rim. Part of the draw of climbing, to me, is the access to places no one else can get to.
I take up the rear while Darren leads, the puppy in between us. He is always on the verge of endo-ing, his balance and little legs not quite as sturdy as they need to be for this kind of terrain. But for being shy, he has heart, and he, more than anything, does not want to be left behind. That is, until his courage fails him—as courage sometimes does—and the soft, plaintive whines he’s been issuing each time he’s been confronted with an especially large drop become a feverish howl of frustration and fear, and he turns back up the slope to get out of the hell we’ve trapped him in. Can we carry him, is the question I ask Darren without having to say a word, and the answer is Cedar slung over Darren’s shoulders, fireman style, Cedar’s head held nobly high in spite of his current indignity.
We make an odd trio when we finally get down to the Crooked, girl, boy, dog on shoulders. The river is high, and fast, but not so much of either that we are dissuaded from crossing. Where we stand, our packs shouldered high, the water is churning around the humps of gray river stones that stand solidly amid so much motion. Darren does a little exploration of the stretch of bank we’re on to see what might be our best bet, and we decide on a string of boulders that look reasonably close together and flat enough on top. Darren will take Cedar across, still on his shoulders, and I’ll follow behind with the rope and our water.
It isn’t until I get to the middle of the river, or maybe three quarters of the way through, that things go south—I am moving slower than Darren, keeping my center of gravity low, as I test each rock before putting my weight on it. I reach one foot out to test the next rock, while I crouch on the one I’m on, and before I know it I have gone in, the glistening black of the stone a slippery menace to my footing. Waist-deep in the river, I call out to Darren—one lone shout of “D!” into the wind and over the roar of the river—and stop for a moment, then, before I began the process of extracting myself from the river. It is odd, to be in the water with all your clothes on, to feel the current push your body into the rock, your hands splayed wet and small and pink across the dark, mottled surface of river stone. One heave and I am out, water puddling around my feet now as I stand on the boulder I was aiming for when I fell.
The shore is an easy few hops away—when I get there, I am the recipient of some anxious licking by Cedar and a gentle appraisal for damage by Darren, and I am suddenly shivering despite the sun, feet squelching in wet shoes as we beat our way through hip high grass. I wanted to stay on the shore, for a minute, to dry off, but instead we head higher up the left side of the Gorge, this time on a path and not through a boulder field.
Where we end up is my perch, the rock carving patterns in my back while I pull my down jacket tighter around my bare legs. My clothes are drying on the rocks next to me, staining the gray darker with the water leaching out of them, all our surfaces turned to the sun. This is when it isn’t so bad—I’m amazed to say—no left behind harnesses, busy parking lots, hordes of people, sad puppies in a boulder field or a dip in the river could dampen our spirits. Darren has gone to scout out the rock walls of the side we’re now on, they look very promising, and Cedar is exploring the hillside, his sweet puppy head popping up over the ledge to see what I’m doing every now and then. I lean my head back and close my eyes. I can still see the view, so emblazoned is it in my mind, the towering spires of the world-famous tuff meeting the columnar basalt of the lower Gorge, the trees a shock of green in a landscape of so much bronze. A wind kicks up, causing me to shiver, but still—I can hear the water below us, and Darren coming back, and Cedar yipping down below us, and life is good.
What the world has taught me—what being outside has taught me—is that there aren’t very many things you can’t beat with good humor and a prevailing sense of optimism. And gratitude. Above all things, gratitude—because how could it be bad, if you are appreciative of where you are, how can things go wrong, if you’re in an extraordinary place with extraordinary company?
Sunset catches us right as we’re leaving—we’d been dabbling in the very edges of daylight all through the walk back, the forest noise on the easier route home a soft song to our tired ears, and the sky a show as we begin the long, steep climb out of the heart of the park. The walls go from golden to a dusky brass, the sky moody and blue as we get back to the car. I lean my head on Darren’s shoulder and revel in our togetherness when we get to the tailgate and sit down, and am filled with an enormous sense of peace. Be here now, the night seems to whisper, and I listen.