Spring Awakening: Hiking Dog Mountain

Ten minutes on Interstate 84 East and the city is behind us. We ride along the crisp edge of the Columbia River Gorge, growing richer in color as the sun burns away the morning fog. A blue sky is the greatest gift on a Saturday morning. To my right are swelling hills of green, puckering up to the sun. Trees, relieved from winter rain, uncurl sulking spines and stretch their shoulders. Trickling down the hill crevices are gentle blue blades, shining rocks and lathering earth, evidence of snow coaxed by the sun.

Taylor and I cross the Bridge of the Gods and turn right, cruising another fourteen miles past fishing docks and crusty mountain towns.

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A sign reads, Dog Mountain Trail Head, and we turn left into a dirt parking lot. It’s full. So we drive to the overflow lot, near capacity. Groups of hikers gather at the trail head, fresh footed and eager.

Taylor and I bound up the first mile of switch backs, and I feel it in my legs already. I try not to think about the last time I really exerted myself. How long ago that was. The lower sides of my back, patches of bone and flesh, ache like a rusty bolt gripped by a strong hand twisted loose. My calves flinch with every step, pores tingle to life, and a pounding in my chest and thighs collide like blazing sound waves reverberating in a small space.

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At the top of the switchbacks, we reach a split in the trail. The sign on the left says, more difficult, and the sign on the right says, less difficult. I chuckle inside my head at the brutal honesty of the signs. The intentional avoidance of the word easy. We choose to go left, a more direct trail to the top,and take the less difficult trail down to save our knees.

Taylor calls from behind for me to slow down, and the next morning when I can barely move he will say, I told you so. But right now I desire a challenge. We pass families, friends, and dogs on leashes, give quick hellos and charge on. Eventually we rise into the wind and come to a clearing at the lip of the mountain. In the distance is Mount Rainier, a sugar kiss in the sky, and below, the Columbia Gorge splits Oregon and Washington, a river that ninety seven miles west joins the Pacific ocean.

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The chestnut colored trail weaves like a thin blade of hair up the grassy hill that in a few weeks will be covered in wild flowers. For now the clenched bulbs shake in the wind, which breaks through the threads of my jacket to my clammy skin.

The top is cold. People sit huddled together eating whatever snacks they brought. The view is blocked by passing clouds, and I think about what I often do on a mountain summit. Usually sitting on my bum, twiddling a piece of grass between my fingers, I think about how the plants and trees and rocks know nothing but the top of this mountain. They know nothing of the lives and systems that bustle over 1,000 feet below. In winter the mountain top freezes, all alone, otherwise daily disturbed by people that come and go from places it will never know and that to me, sounds sad. I would hate to have roots.

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When I grow too cold to stay, we descend down the less difficult path, far more pleasant. It is quiet as we exchange breaths with the thick trunks that totally surround me, transporting me to the place I love most in the whole world. The place of pure nature and nothing else. Taylor and I converse about something with a passion that rises the further we are lost in a hike.

The first hike of spring was an awakening. While it left me nearly sick with pain for a full day after, it made me even more excited for summer adventures to come.

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