In late June, 2020, I emerged from months of sheltering in place, due to the coronavirus pandemic, and ventured out into the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, in SW Washington State. It was a beautiful, sunny, 80 degree day, with a light breeze. The forest service road to the trail head was mostly paved, but full of giant potholes and rough, slow-going sections. This was a part of this forest I had never been to, but had seen photos and had heard about it’s spectacular beauty.
The trail was gentle and meandering, as it followed a crystal clear river and was punctuated by magnificent waterfalls along the way. Salmon berry were beginning to ripen and I imagined that by the following week they would be prolific throughout the area. Although with the number of people hiking the trail, it was unlikely they would last long. There was a near constant stream of other hikers and backpackers; many families with children making their way towards camp-sights along the river’s edge. We spent much of the hike moving off the trail to give people space to pass, as we feel that it’s important to follow social distancing guidelines, even when in the outdoors. Most people seemed appreciative and many people even wore masks as they hiked. It was a reminder that even in the restorative beauty of this place, the reality of what was happening in the world today could not be ignored.
These are hard times for everyone. My own sense of self and the ways in which I interact with the world have been disrupted and changed. My work, my studies, and community have all been thrown into chaos. And there is also this constant undercurrent of uneasiness and disquiet, even when doing simple things like making dinner or going for a walk. It often feels like nothing makes sense anymore and that I am just going through the motions of life, despite them feeling inconsequential in this moment in time. But, nature is a good anchor. It reminds me that I am of this world and that I can find myself again in these places. Life makes more sense here.
About two years ago I decided that I wanted to start running. I was in my mid thirties and office work was keeping me more sedentary than I would have liked. I hated going to the gym, and was not a particularly athletic person, but I did love being outside, so running seemed like a potentially good fit.
My first two years of trying to learn to run were pretty rough. I generally walked most of time and making it a full mile seemed way harder than it should have been. Progress was slow at best and over and over again I gave up, only to try again a few weeks or a few months later. But, this past winter something changed. I started to make it a full mile without stopping and once I hit that mark, my times started improving. I went from being proud of a 13 minute mile to doing 11 minute miles, and then just a few months ago I ran two miles at a 9 1/2 minute pace. Things were looking up!
I then decided to sign up for a 5K. My goal was to run the whole route without walking or stopping and to do it at a 13 minute a mile pace. The route ended up being supper hilly and HARD. But, I completed the 5K at a 12 minute a mile pace without needing to stop! I was unbelievably proud of this small accomplishment.
Which brings me to today. My partner and I have decided that we want to start trail running and with my new ability to make it further than a block, I finally felt ready to give it a try. So here is my first attempt at trail running! We made it about 6 miles through Forest Park in Portland, OR. Much of the route was in great shape, but parts were supper muddy and slick. We ran and walked and stopped to smell the flowers. It was really more of a meander with some running involved. There was a light, but lovely Northwest rain falling the whole time and we ended our run wet, muddy, and very happy! I was totally exhausted in the end, but I think I may have finally found a way to exercise that I love!
I always find it interesting how many people will drive long distances to go hiking, but many of those same people won’t walk long distances in their own cities. For me, most of inner Portland can be accessed on foot, and I think that a two, three, four, or even eight mile walk across the city is a wonderful way to spend the day. Of course I love being out in wild natural areas too, but if one never walks from place to place in the urban expanses in which they live, they may never truly know the place they call home.
As I walked across town on this beautiful late winter day, I was particularly struck by how empty the sidewalks were. There were plenty of cars zooming down the roads, but relatively few people out and about on foot. It’s one of the strange things about walking in a city where so many people drive. I can be out in broad daylight in one of the most idyllic neighborhoods, with gorgeous old houses, and towering trees, and not see another person for blocks at a time. I often wonder where everyone is. How could I be the only one person in this spot at this time when there were millions of people living across the city? Where was everyone? Sometimes I will walk at rush hour and watch as people in cars inch their way down the road, angry and frustrated, while I am the only person walking on the empty, but beautiful and perfectly functional sidewalk. I wonder where they are going that driving seems like such a good option? If they are on a city street instead of the freeway, it can’t be too far. I wonder how many of those people just don’t know that walking is an option and one that would make their lives so much less painful.
Along my walk, I came across so many curious and beautiful things; friendly neighborhood cats, six poetry stations, colorful murals, endless yard signs, and beautifully landscaped gardens with abundant and fragrant, early spring flowers. I wandered around without any set route and discovered streets and places I had never been before. The whole walk was about four miles and took me a little over an hour. A perfect way to spend the afternoon, with lots of time to think, reflect, and wonder about the world around me.