In honor of the autumnal equinox, here is a reflection on some of the forces at work in my life over the past year: forces of love and landscape that I think move us all. I hope you enjoy the journey through the landscapes herein, both internal and external.
It was nearly one year ago.
I experience my life in patterns, and nearly a year ago I walked into the forest beneath Three Fingered Jack, one in the line of volcanoes dividing Oregon down the middle. Part of me would like to say I had no idea how that night would catalyze what was to come in the following year, but that is not true. That night I made an intentional gesture, reaching out into the darkness, reaching out for what I longed for. I set in motion the path I’ve walked since. Nothing happens without intention.
When the coyotes howled in the middle of the night, I woke not in fear, but in exhilaration. Their barks were eerie, moving uninhibited through a pine forest free of undergrowth, so unlike the northeastern forests of the White Mountains I knew and loved, had so recently left. Had I been alone I think I would have been afraid. When the yelps awoke us he didn’t need to speak, or lay a comforting hand upon my shoulder. All I needed was for him to be there, and he was.
When I look for them, the patterns always emerge. Three years separate my night beneath Three Fingered Jack from the night I walked into the White Mountains for my first time alone overnight in the wilderness. Three years and the width of the country. In the landscape of my psyche there is little distance between the two, because that walk, too, was a catalyst: a healing one and an intentional one.
In the three years between, mountains seemed to shape every movement; they always do. I lived boldly in the mountains I love, in New Hampshire. Then I lived fearfully in mountains that threatened me, in Utah. I moved to Oregon where I lived timidly in mountains I didn’t yet know, didn’t yet love. That night beneath Three Fingered Jack I walked into a mysterious wilderness and asked it to let me find my place here in Oregon. That night I asked him if I could love him. There was no room for timidity in my inner landscape anymore. I listened to unrestrained barks of the coyotes, so confident in their place, so transformative in my psyche. When the sunrise broke over Black Butte, east of Three Fingered Jack, its light spilled into a landscape I believed could become my home. In the light of the sunrise I walked out of the woods beside someone I loved.
And then there’s now.
The year did not go as I intended. I spent most of my time pining for mountains on the other side of the country, yearning for an equivalent home in Oregon. I poured love into a person who didn’t want it, couldn’t take it. For three months he tried, then we spent another nine retreating, hiding from one another. The combination left me shattered.
I knew what I had to do. I waited for the right opportunity.
The Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho, a half day’s drive from my home in Bend: a mountain range I had longed to experience for months. Does the yearning make the eventual connection sweeter? That is where I chose to go for my first-ever solo night in the wilderness outside of my White Mountains. I had only to hike in a couple miles. I was out for only one night. But I learned last year it doesn’t take long for life-changing things to be set in motion.
On the first day it rained. But first it was cloudy for hours. Hours of gray skies, teasing me, threatening me. Would the clouds unleash? Or maybe the sun would poke through. It certainly seemed like it was trying. For three months it felt like the sun was trying to shine. Or was it three hours? It did rain, gently at first, then it poured. I tried to stay outside, I tried to wait it out. Sitting on the shore of the wind-whipped lake, I looked up into the sky and allowed myself to get soaked, and I cried. Cried until I felt that I could have been the rainstorm myself. I cried for nine months. The barren winter passed, and spring came with the promise of warmth, but it was just a tease, no warmth came. Then summer, in all its false hope. Then fall again, which found me sitting on the edge of a stormy lake, alone in unfamiliar wilderness. For the briefest moment I thought I saw a figure on the ridge across the lake. I raised my hands, reaching out into the gathering night, to the black sky, reaching out to what I longed for. Amazing how a single day can represent a whole year. The coyotes howled.
I had no choice. I retreated. Alone in my tent I waited for the rain to stop, but I lost consciousness before it did.
Deep in my own wilderness, alone, the way I always seem to find myself eventually. That is where integration happens: my experiences, at first only things that happened to me, are drawn on my inner map.
This year I ached more than I would have thought possible, yearning for the White Mountains. Longing to be seen, known, as I am by the granite of New Hampshire. This year I loved, at first only as much as I thought possible, and then more. I loved a person so deeply something inside me was rearranged.
Mountains move slowly, shaped by the elements that move the earth: wind, water, and omnipresent gravity. Psyches move according to their own shaping elements; loss and love. In my psyche this year, I built mountain ranges between myself and the things I love. I longed for New Hampshire, alienating myself from new landscapes. And I pushed him so far, to the outside perimeter of my love, where I will never be able to reach him again.
Beside the stormy lake, I slept for twelve hours: the full cycle of a clock.
The autumnal equinox is a tipping point. Equal light and dark. Things could go either way today.
I pulled the zipper and it crunched. My hand bumped an icicle on the rain-fly. At some point in the night the rain had stopped. The world had frozen. The sky had transitioned from gray to black to a brilliant, icy blue.
My emergence was cautious, tentative. The very air seemed too delicate to disturb. The lake was steaming so heavily I could not see the sun rising above the other shore. I turned instead to the mountains to the west.
On a map it’s easy to see where the safe passages are, where the going will be manageable. I had a route planned for that second day: I would hike out from my campsite, then I would shed my pack and run 11 miles to a lake, gaining a mere 1000 feet as I passed safely between peaks. Looking toward them as I set out from my camp it was hard to imagine such a gentle route existed. Once again I felt not fear but exhilaration. Only this time I was alone.
Within an hour I had stashed my pack and was running. Maybe it was the effect of hiking for an hour with my full frame pack before starting my run, but I felt as though I was free for the first time in months. The trail reminded me of running in the Whites; it wove indiscriminately around, over, and in between rocks. It was steep in unexpected places. The evergreen forest sat in a bed of undergrowth, the low-growing shrubbery that makes a forest feel dense and mysterious, so conspicuously lacking in the pine forests around Bend.
Unexpectedly, the forest opened and I found myself in a talus field of pale rock, fallen from the peak that was all I could see to the north. All illusion vanished. I was not in the White Mountains. Trepidation crept through my veins as I waited for the heaviness to return, the despair, the burden I had long since accepted. My steps faltered.
No burden joined me. The icy air had given way to a warmth. Brisk warmth, which left a mild stinging on my skin the whole run, but I never felt cold. Even when I stopped at the rocky lake shore and let the wind spray the water onto my bare skin I never shivered. The glow of recognition was unfolding inside me. I was seeing:
It’s possible, even likely, that the mountains in the space between me and the things I love are not the impassable barrier I have made them out to be. Loving the White Mountains so intensely made it hard for me to connect with a new landscape, but only because I saw my love as a barrier. Loving a person so intensely was a new experience, one that I hadn’t yet found my safe passageway through. It’s possible, I thought as I began my descent to the trailhead where he would pick me up for the long drive back to Bend, that these mountains in my psyche guard the safe passageways.
When I explore new mountain ranges I read maps and I see the valleys I will travel. Maybe my love will travel up these valleys. My inner map is a reminder, not of the suffering I experienced this year or in years past, but of the love I have felt: the deep, soul-rearranging love for a mountain range and for a person.
The White Mountains were with me as I finished my run, lighting up my soul as the sunshine lit the valley. I think the Sawtooth could feel it. The mountains of Oregon will feel it too: I’m ready to love this landscape. I’m ready for this landscape to see me. Maybe he still sees me too. Maybe he has been standing on the ridge all these months, waiting for me to come in from the rain. To dry off, warm up, sleep. Wake up again in a new light.
“You doing okay over there?” he asked me hours later, in the car, nearly back to Bend. Unlike our night in the shadow of Three Fingered Jack, we’d spent our time in the Sawtooths camping on different ridgelines, running different trails. He’d picked me up and we’d driven together out of the mountains, heading west, heading home. I didn’t think he’d noticed the single tear I had tried to surreptitiously wipe from under the rim of my sunglasses.
“It’s this book,” I replied from the passenger seat, my fingers shaking slightly as I turned its page. “It’s set in the White Mountains. It makes me cry. But it’s really good.”
He chuckled, probably relieved that that was all.
But it wasn’t all, not by a longshot.
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