Monday is Earth Day. My first visit to Oregon gave me my most intimate encounter with the earth. One May night in 1979, I experienced how cradled we are in this world.
I came to Oregon that spring to read long books and hike long trails. If you’ve ever tried to make your way through an unfamiliar Russian novel, you know how “wilderness experience” applies to both. We would read challenging literature, and just when we wanted to give up understanding, we students and our three professors would lace up our boots and head into the wilderness.
Our longest hike was a three-day trek into the Three Sisters Wilderness Area. By the second day, we were as far from civilization as most of us suburban kids had ever been.
Midday, I left our base camp for what I thought would be a three-hour hike, following a river to a waterfall and back. My daypack had an extra pair of socks, my rain poncho, and a carrot. In my pocket, I had my compass and a map.
I got lost. I was counting on the river to guide me, but the brush along the water was too thick. I hiked higher up, where the scrub thinned, keeping the sound of running water on my left. I knew when the river forked, I would be near the falls and then it would be time to turn back.
I missed the fork in the river. I also missed dinner, and I was beginning to lose daylight. The terrain was taking me up. I could read my compass but the map no longer made any sense. I began calling for help, four times from each spot, once in each direction.
Snowy patches reflected enough light to keep me going, but soon I couldn’t tell if the dark splotches ahead were ground or water. I had no flashlight or matches. Wet boots would be asking for frostbite. So I stopped and looked for a place to rest until daylight returned.
I found a fallen tree, half hollowed, laying between two saplings. What remained of the large tree was shaped like a cradle. Its center was filled with sawdust softness. There were no bugs. For the next few hours, that was home.
I loosened my boots. I stretched the poncho over me, tucked under my head and pinched against the saplings with my knees. The carrot on my chest worked like a center tent pole.
I cannot describe the mixture of fear and comfort I felt in that tree trunk.
I didn’t dare sleep. Slowing metabolism invites frostbite. So I played a game to stay awake. I listed everything I was thankful for that started with A, then B, then C.
I was on F when I heard what sounded like footsteps, very nearby. The harder I listened, the less I understood. Step, step. If the scrunching sound was a person, I should make some noise. Step, step. If it was an animal, I shouldn’t. Step, step. But the animal could probably smell me, so why not take the chance? Step, step. Unless that might frighten it. Then scrunching sound stopped.
I remained perfectly still, listening. What I heard was perfect silence.
Slowly I began to relax and returned to my alphabet of gratitude. On H, the footsteps returned. I stopped to listen. The footsteps stopped too. It happened again at J or K, or possibly both.
I wondered how it knew what I was feeling. Comfort brought footsteps. Fear brought silence.
Then I noticed my carrot had slipped, and it all made sense. The scrunching sound was made by my eye lashes brushing against my poncho. As I relaxed into my list of thankfulness, my eyes opened and closed — “step, step.” Then fear — no motion, no sound.
I smiled, then laughed. I lifted the poncho to see light on the horizon. I had made it through the night, with over half the alphabet to spare.
I retraced my steps and made it back to base camp before others awoke. I probably compared my night to some Russian novel over the breakfast campfire. I wish I had looked back to see that cradle one more time.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs