Down in the Valley, the Belly of the Beast

Hike #18, 12.2 miles, no elevation gains, Feb 12, 2018, Bear Creek Greenway from Ashland to N. Medford, Rogue Valley Oregon

 

The bottom of valleys tend to have water sources, a river, or lake for irrigation and transport. The bottom of the valley becomes the main living artery for a region. As Paul Salopek, a National Geographic journalist who is walking the path of human migration from Africa to South America, https://www.nationalgeographic.org/projects/out-of-eden-walk/, stated in a recent interview, human migration takes place along the water sources, bottoms of valleys and coastal regions. To get to know the people of a region you must walk along the bottom of the valley.

IMG_1538Walking along the main artery of a valley is like traveling with a scope along a main artery inside a body, exposing its internal workings.

I live at the top of the Rogue Valley, the southern end. I have long wanted to walk the whole Greenway that runs along Bear Creek, the river in the trough of the valley that flows north to the Rogue River which flows west to the Pacific Ocean. Currently the Bear Creek Greenway is 19 miles long, but soon it will be connected with the Rogue River Greenway running from Grants Pass to the town of Rogue River, at the end of the Bear Creek Greenway in Central Point. A 19 mile walk or bike ride will become a 45 mile one running the length of the valley.

The morning was sunny and cold, with a recent snowfall dusting the Siskyou peaks in the distance. We had company from two other walking women for an hour and a half. I’m a firm believer at this point in the value of knowing the place where I live on foot. Our brains are wired for taking in the world at a 2-3 mile an hour speed. Our bodies respond well to such a pace, and so was mine on this day. After an hour and a half warm-up, just about at the point our walking companions called it quits, my body moved with ease and joy. It takes about 5 miles of walking before I experience joy flowing through me and a smile is permanently plastered on my face.

The greenway at the top of the valley is well maintained. In the small town of Ashland it runs along the railroad track, its freight line transportation artery, and shows the backside of well-to-do mixed-purposed buildings. When it emerges from the town, the trail runs along the river with a wide stroke of natural habitat on both sides of the river, where plant and animal life flourish.

IMG_1535As we left the first stretch of the Greenway and walked further north (into the body of the valley), more and more debris cluttered the green zone along the walkway. As we moved from one rural community to the next, the Greenway showed trailer courts backed up against the fences that bordered the Greenway on one side, the freeway on the other, baseball courts tucked in an open space. A narrow artery running between busy commerce and less affluent living, like an artery running along the busy stomach and pumping heart of the body.

As we approached the larger town of Medford, the main city in the valley, we met more homeless people sitting on the side of the trail rummaging through their belongings, stroking the head of their dog-companion, passing time in the now warmer sun, faces wry and weathered. Our greeting was met with a nod, a hello and “God bless you”! God seems to be all present for homeless people as I’ve noted on the signs they hold up when asking for help.

IMG_1545The river now also showed a shopping cart here and there floating in the water, plastic bags, trash mixed with late winter plant debris on its banks. As we walked under the freeway, creeks trashed with torn clothing, shopping carts, styrofoam cups fed into the river now further away.

The city, as a digestive track, absorbed all the debris and created pathways to go over and under, a footbridge, the trail joining a city park, where artists had transformed the concrete underbelly of main thoroughfares with large murals of living creatures on bridge supports, creatures that support and maintain the natural environment we all need to live, bees, birds, cats, fish and turtles. Bright splashes of color in a concrete environment with little real plant life to remind us what feeds us.

It seemed only appropriate to eat our lunch and digest and rest in the park along the greenway in the digestive section of this valley. The place where industry, commerce and trade takes place. 10 Miles down, the knees were talking from walking on a paved trail. We called our ride for a pick-up further on.

We walked another 2 miles to the N.Medford Railway park, the trail swerving through an older neighborhood with sweet little backyards, along shopping mall parking lots into the industrial part of town, appropriately displaying its old glory train engines and cars. We had walked 51/2 hours, 12.2 miles and found what makes the place we live in tick and hang together: care for the environment, room for diversity, historical sentiment and a taste for art. A bit of trash here and there, but considering the amount of people using this trail, relatively little. I know we will work together to clean up after each other. At a time when many of us wonder what the American way is anymore, this is an American way I can live with.

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Nature as My Companion

Hike #8 of 52,  Jan 4, 2018, Ostrich Peak, Rogue River National Forest, 8 miles, 2000 ft elevation gain to 4630 ft

Dark clouds are racing through the sky, the temperature is dropping and I’m hiking down from the top of Ostrich peak on a January day. Not the best time of year to get caught in a storm. Trees line the trail both sides, a forest of madrone trees, obscuring the view of the valley and making my world even darker. My boot steps on a muddy spot on the trail. I notice the 5-inch bear track in front of me in the mud. A pile of scat showing madrone berries, follows further on the trail.

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“I’m alone.” The thought is a reminder that small fear rides on my shoulder when I’m out in the wilderness. My mind infused with endorphins from 3 hours of hiking, doesn’t linger in fear. It turns to an awareness of my surroundings: the deep quiet in the trees, a sense of waiting for what is coming; the variegated trunks in beige and maroon, wearing the peeling bark as playful rosettes on a smooth young skin. These are young Pacific madrone trees (Arbutus Mensiesii), growing close together, supporting each other as their gangly limbs reach for the light. A family of trees, silently exchanging nutrients through their shared root systems, sucking the nutrient straw through the cambium up the trunks to their leaves for an exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen. These trees need one another to make it to adulthood. Many will perish to make room for fewer and fewer adult ones. Other species will move in under the adult canopy. And so the forest changes as it gives me passage, lets me lean into its silence, as if it’s interested in my thoughts.

So I think, following the illogical gyrations of my mind. I think grateful thoughts for being able to walk, for having a body that is still strong enough. I think family thoughts, letting my children go their own way, far away; I’m an elder tree, and new species are moving into my life:neighbors, friends, changing faces. I think thoughts of loss of my daily companion many years ago, and as sadness rises in me, still, the soft quiet air envelops my body. I relax, let go, accept the changes that life brings, and think how I’m making this a positive, comforting day by being out here by myself, breathing the fresh air the trees make for me.  I’m not alone, I’m just hiking solo. Like the bears need these trees to survive, I need them too.

As I descend, the cushioned feeling of the trees’ embrace remains with me. A feeling I can recall while writing, while looking at the photograph of the trees, while thinking of the hike. I marvel over the mind’s capacity for repair, for the yoga of synapses, bending to connect memories with feelings.

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The art of living is simple: seek positive experiences and your mind will think happy thoughts, despite loss, despite the changes aging brings. This 8th hike of the 52 hikes has brought me joy and comfort.

Fear, the backside of Joy

hike #5, Pilot Rock Summit Elevation: 5908ft, 1000 Ft elevation gain over 2 miles from the trailhead. Thursday Dec 14, 2017

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The trailhead hides in the shadows of the trees on the North-West side of Pilot Rock, a snowy/icy entrance. My car sits lonely in the empty parking lot. Even though it’s only mid-day, because of the shadowy light, low in its slant, it already feels like the end of the afternoon. I hike the incline, happy to be out, smell the pine trees, and feel the air and sun, thin as it is. A burst of joy erupts in my chest, as my body warms to the trail, and my senses take in the smells and colors of nature. I call it “happiness in my heart”. It’s a predictable happiness when I go out solo and surrender to the laws of nature.

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Dry trail follows an icy, snowy section, then more snow, melted and refrozen, a small meadow with dried grasses struggling to keep their bowed heads above the snow. It’s time for micro-spikes. As I struggle with muddy boots, and messy hands, I say to myself, why didn’t I put them on right away? But, no use crying over spilled milk. Fighting my wobbly stance, I get them on though, and feel more secure as the spikes crunch into the icy crust. Perfect tool for the job!

The trail keeps climbing. Onward and upward, rocks and ice, I wonder if my spikes will wear down on the rocks, so I step in the icy spots to avoid hitting the rock. I don’t want to trouble with taking the spikes off since I’ll need them on the way back down. The trees sway above me in agreement, letting light through from the South, showing a sunlit valley in the distance. I feel vulnerable with the sun not here to warm me, the cold air waiting in the shadows. This is December, not hot July.

With my senses on alert from finding my footing, my breathing sped up as I exert myself while climbing, the accompanying adrenaline releases a wild fear. What if I slip, what if I break my ankle, what if ….None of it is likely to happen, I know the trail well, I have a GPS device to call for help and yet, I’m here by myself, I am the one to take care of me. This is what animals must feel as they roam, always on alert for danger, even if part of a herd or pod.

I reach the top of the trail, stand at the bottom of the chute that leads up to the top of the rock. A top I can’t reach today. The last time I climbed to the top was with my husband many years ago when he gave me a boost to pull myself up through the chute. I tried it last year on a warm spring day, but couldn’t get up by myself, my legs not long enough to reach. With snow and ice on the rocky ledge, it’s foolish to try. My husband’s death anniversary just days ago still rummaging around in my mind, I realize I may never again stand on top of Pilot Rock. I call out in my mind why aren’t you here to give me a boost? To go with me on the trail?

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Since solo is my mode of living now, surrounded by friends and family but not tied to them, I go out in nature to feel connected, to feel joy. On this hike I know the fear that’s the other side of that connectedness: the quick turn life can take, an afternoon with a wrong step, the chill of a cold wind. I look out along the rock wall to the hazy, far away valley far below and know, it’s time to find my way back to the safe hollow of my house, like the shelter every animal finds when night falls, a hiding place from the danger of prey, a respite from the continuous search for food and water, when the senses can come to rest. I use my spikes and poles for support as I descend, retracing my steps, finding comfort in the momentary familiarity of the trail’s markings. Despite the fear lurking in the back of my mind, I am at home here. I carry that at-home-ness in my heart, next to the joy that burst out earlier. Later I drive in the late sunlight on the snow covered dirt road. This is my place. The gifts of nature will nurture me until the next time.

When does a walk become a hike?

December 4, #3, A winter walk/hike along the Bear Creek Greenway, week 2, 4.2 miles, 10,000 steps, 2 floors, 37 F

52 hikes, 52 weeks

 

 

 

 

 

I want to hike 52 different hikes for this 52-hikes-in-52-weeks challenge, and now with snow in the mountains around the valley, I have to find trails closer to home. A friend who wanted to come along on hike #3 suggested the Greenway. I consider going on the Greenway a walk, not a hike, but limited by my friend’s schedule we decided to walk/hike out from my home to the first freeway underpass and back, 5 miles or so.

I realize I may have become a bit snobbish about what I consider a hike and need to re-consider my definitions. The Oxford English Dictionary defines hiking as a long walk for pleasure, but when does a walk become a hike? When I hike from Etna summit to Payne’s lake on the PCT, the distance is 5 miles and I consider that a hike. I guess length of the walk/hike isn’t the issue, because my 3 mile hike up Ostrich Peak last week I considered a (short) hike. The Bear Creek Greenway is green, there is wildlife, there are ponds, a river, wetlands, so being in nature as a determinant doesn’t apply either.

What then makes the difference between a walk and a hike? Difficulty of terrain? I’ve hiked stretches of the PCT that felt like a highway and weren’t difficult. Bike access? No that doesn’t turn the hike into a walk. I’ve hiked multi-use trails that were accessible to bicycles that I considered a hike because the dirt trail was in nature away from streets and houses. Pavement? When you hike the 490 miles on the Camino in Spain and much of the “trail” is paved, does it become a walk? Maybe pavement is the determinant; indeed people usually say they “walked” the Camino.

Our Greenway is a community trail. It was built in sections – with continuous community involvement and fundraising – in 1973, 1980, 1995, and 1998. The Greenway is now a 17.9 mile trail/bicycle path that connects communities in the Rogue Valley. It runs along a tributary to the Rogue River, Bear Creek.I can access the Greenway in a five-minute walk from my home.

I walk and talk with my friend on the path. My body takes in the light. The dried grasses wave in the wind. The clear blue sky reflects the cold light, moves the icy wind and tightens my face. I talk, but notice, and feel the slight incline and descent of this river’s wetlands in my calves, the spring in my feet. I hear birds screeching, water rushing and know that nature is providing for animals that live here.The freeway to the East makes an ever-rushing ocean sound.

As I walk, I think about the power of a trail, what it does and offers to humans and animals. Some trails take me away from my community and let me enter the surrounding wilderness, but this one lets me experience my community as people and bicycles pass me (interesting, no dogs today). The Greenway lets me walk the length of this valley without having to get into a car, it lets me know the place where I live at a pace my body can integrate. I mostly walk the trail from my home to where my town ends on the North end, about half the length of my town. I can walk south and do the same. I can know my town from one end to the other without cars rushing by. In my life time ever faster moving transportation modes have robbed us of that intimacy of place.

I walk and talk and greet other walkers, move over for an occasional bicyclist. As we reach the underpass, I want to keep walking, walk the whole 18 miles of this trail. Does it become a hike when I do that? I’m still confused. John Muir, the famous naturalist and hiker, didn’t worry about the difference when he said, “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out until sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” It may take a few more hikes/walks before I figure out what the difference between walking and hiking is for me. Stay tuned!