Category Archives: Hiking

Book Review: The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs

The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs: Use Outdoor Clues to Find Your Way, Predict the Weather, Locate Water, Track Animals, and Other Forgotten Skills
Tristan Gooley
The Experiment, LLC 2014
402 pages

I promise I actually still read books! I just read them more slowly these days, which is why it took me over a month to work my way through Tristan Gooley’s excellent The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs. And I enjoyed it so much I wanted to be sure I shared it with you.

Have you ever had a book that you were really, really excited to read? This is one of those books for me. As soon as I saw it in a little bookstore in Ilwaco, WA, I knew I needed to not only buy it and read it but absorb it. As the title suggests, it’s a detailed look at how to use signs in the landscape to determine everything from where you’re headed to what the weather will do and what various living beings you may meet along the way. Most of the chapters are dedicated to specific areas of study, such as animal tracks or what you can tell from local flora, fungi and lichens. But they’re interspersed with a few chapters of the author’s anecdotes, which not only illustrate the concepts therein, but also demonstrate that even a master outdoorsperson can get lost!

Because the book is neatly divided into chapters, it makes a good workbook for improving your skills at noticing and interpreting these clues. Even better, the last chapter includes specific tips and exercises to hone your abilities in each chapter’s bailiwick. My intent, now that I’ve read the book through once, is to make use of it on my own travels, first working through it chapter by chapter, and then integrating everything together.

Even if you aren’t very active outdoors, it’s still an incredibly fascinating read with numerous “Wow, I had NO idea!” moments in store for you. Gooley very obviously loves nature and has spent countless hours reading its fine print with gusto. At a time when many people simply see “nature” as the unending scenery outside, he invites us to pay attention to the minute details and the stories they tell, and then wrap them all back up into great ecosystemic symphonies. This is a must-have for anyone whose path intersects with the natural world, whether practically, artistically, spiritually or otherwise.

You can buy the book directly from the publisher here. You can also get a taste of the sorts of skills in this book on the author’s website, well worth perusing.

Mine is a Paganism of the Body, Part I

Early June 2015, north side of Yocum Ridge, Mt. Hood Wilderness, Oregon

Don’t look down. Don’t look down. Don’t look–

I am bellied up against a massive pile of fine glacial till the size of an overturned cargo van, draped over it like laundry laid out in the sun. This late landslide has all but swallowed the narrow mountain trail my hiking buddy and I have been traveling, an alternate route of the Pacific Crest Trail that saved us a harrowing river crossing thousands of feet below.  We’re three days into our backpacking trip, my first mini-through-hike, and his opportunity to add another section of the PCT to his already impressive record.

The surface of the till is gritty, all sand and no rocks–and no handholds. As my feet balance precariously on the six inches of trail width left uncovered, I lean hard into the mound, a task made more difficult by the forty pound pack on my back that raises my weight again by a third and lifts my center of gravity by several inches. I dare not straighten myself to rest my back or resettle the straps, because my toes and my balance are all that are keeping me from pitching backward down a hundred-foot drop at the edge of the half-foot trail. It makes no matter to me later that no one has actually died there in recent memory, only had to be pulled up from their long slide down by rescue teams. As far as I’m concerned the draw of till below me is gaping open to swallow me alive–and soon dead.

My friend calls to me encouragingly; I don’t register the words. He’s only a dozen feet away, safe on the other side of the washout, but he may as well be on the other side of the Muddy Fork valley. I’m halfway through: backward to known territory, or forward into the unknown. I hesitate, feeling the precious few inches of soil beneath my feet and the scrape of grit against my belly, shirt pulled up as I sag just a little.

If I panic, I’ll die.

I don’t even think to still my breathing or consciously calm myself. I’m terrified, but I know the cost of hasty actions. I look to my friend. “Stick your butt out more, and move your feet side to side. Keep your toes against the wall!” I do what he says, and I instantly feel my balance shift inward toward the side of the ridge. The pull of the pack back into empty air lessens, and I begin to move in a slow crab-crawl to my left.

It could have taken only seconds or days, I’m not sure. In those moments all that matters is the careful placing of feet and hands, the sensitive registration of my body’s weight and gravity as my balance shifted along the uneven surface of the till-hill. I become nothing more than a series of muscles, bones, tendons, lungs to breathe air and senses to choose the next action. There are no thoughts, no decisions, only the instinct to live. I am more aware than I have ever been in my entire life.

And then I am there, back on the undamaged trail, taking my hiking poles from my friend and moving away from the ordeal I just passed. A few feet pass and then we both stop to rest and breathe. He may have been through this sort of thing before, but he is shaken as well. We compose ourselves, have some water and rice crackers, and then continue our way along the trail toward the Muddy Fork of the Sandy River.

Before we arrive at the first crossing, we will have traversed two more of these landslides, with a third, lesser one on the far side of the valley.

November 2015, home, Portland, Oregon

I awaken in the dark of the morning; without my glasses I guess that the clock is beaming three-oh-something. Beside me my partner of several years is fast asleep; I’ve always envied his ability to spend the entire night in deep slumber while I wake and fret periodically.

Of course.

My bladder has decided to be unmerciful, and so I crawl out into the cool room to make the too-long journey down the hallway to the bathroom. I’ve done this so often I don’t even bother to turn on the light. It almost seems a waste of precious energy and heat to peel my arm away from where it’s wrapped around my ribs just to flick a single switch. I make it to my destination unscathed, and in mere moments I am ready to make the trek back.

Upon my arrival back at the bed, my lover has sprawled across my portion of mattress. Were I still in situ, his elbow would be laid across my head–not for the first time, either. I crawl back into the covers and attempt to salvage whatever heat I left. His ribs, on the other hand, get a bit of a nudge, and without breaking a snore he rolls back over onto his side.

…let the soft animal of your body/love what it loves

I curl up against his back, my feet tucked between his calves, one arm under his pillow and the other wrapped around his waist. Mary Oliver’s wild geese couldn’t get between us now. I take a few moments to settle, and then let my mind drift off into the daydream-land I’ve created for my very own bedtime stories, lulling myself back into safe slumber.

May 2010, Providence Portland Medical Center, Portland, Oregon

The pain is bad enough that I am openly crying, something that hasn’t happened since I was a child. This is no ear infection, or the bone in my hand I fractured when I tripped and fell in a spontaneous race with a friend. No, this has potentially worse consequences. Over the past couple of days I’ve had a growing sharp pain in my abdomen, first a general discomfort all over (indigestion, perhaps) but then worsening, and localizing in the lower right quadrant. I don’t think I’ve misplaced my appendix; all my other organs are as they should be. But the doctor has decided to send me to stay overnight for IV antibiotics, close monitoring, and possibly surgery.

I call my recently ex-husband, with whom I will only live a few more weeks until my new apartment is ready, to come pick up our car, and would he please bring me my laptop? Even on the phone he sounds more resentful than concerned, an increasing trend in our strained–but thankfully temporary–living situation. I am settled into a wheelchair and taken over to the care unit; although I could have walked, the nurse insists. This simple action of denying me my own mobility suddenly makes me feel weak and vulnerable in a way I have never been before, not even as a seemingly invincible child. The surgeon on duty terrifies me with threats of removing a section of intestine if I don’t get better; one of the diverticuli has burst open and I have a raging infection that could kill me. He has the bedside manner of a vulture.

I’m so scared.

I keep my sanity through my connections online, keeping in touch with people who are unable to visit but who care nonetheless. My closest friend visits as often as he is able, but obligations pull him away the next day. My tiny veins reject first one IV needle, then a second, then a third, then a fourth, until all the veins on the tender undersides of my elbows are blown and the nurses must resort to my more sensitive hands. I barely sleep; someone is in every hour to take my vitals, though my heart still beats and my temperature fluctuates less and less.

I rage at my body, as the restlessness eats at my mind. How could it betray me? I was only thirty-one; I’d been running three times a week for a few months now, a way to cope with the disruption of my life story that was divorce. I should be out there in the warm spring sunshine, my feet slapping against sidewalks in the wetland park, shaking off the trauma of the previous few years’ travails. Instead, I had doctors telling me I was closer to death than at any point in my existence; only the needle in my hand would know for sure whether more drastic measures should be taken.

Of course, it was another doctor who told me that my running routine was part of how I managed to rebound so quickly from the threat in my belly. My immune system, depressed for so long from too many hours in closed office buildings, and an increasingly stressful living situation, began to recuperate as my muscles firmed and the blood flowed more quickly through my veins. So now that effort pays off, as a mere twelve hours into the IV antibiotics the pain lessens enough that I am able to bend at the waist again without screaming. I even wheel the IV cart into the hallway and show the nurse on duty how, standing on one leg, I can pull my other knee up to my chest and it only hurts a bit, really!

It will be another day and a half before I am released, allowed to run–or at least limp–free, back to the new life I am creating. It is a life more aware of mortality; though the asthma I’ve had since I was young has limited my activities in cold weather and sometimes even curtailed my warm-weather running, it’s never tried to kill me. My gut, on the other hand, quickly flooded me with deadly bacteria with just the tiniest pinprick of a hole.

I listened to that breach, and I attended to it–thankfully I still had insurance at the time, or I might have become one of the thousands of uninsured who die from curable diseases each year for fear of crippling debt. But it left me scarred, in mind if not body. Now, even six years later, any tiny twinge in my midsection makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. I go back to that helpless feeling, tethered to a sterile hospital bed by tubes of medicines, made impersonal with the thin drape of fabric they call a “gown”. And so I keep running, hoping to outrun that experience again, and I lift weights, ready to fight should it lurch across my path once more.

January 2016, Planet Fitness, Portland, Oregon

I just turned thirty-seven a couple of months ago. I went back to the gym for the first time in years just a few days before my birthday, though I paid for the membership weeks before then. I’m a bit of a procrastinator.

I hate the treadmill. Running in place never has the same appeal as wandering city streets and traversing parks, and it’s tougher to keep myself focused. The bounce of the belt below my feet never felt natural, and I long for grass and a bit of uneven terrain to challenge me. No hope there, though. So I make myself run a mile and a half–that’s it. I’ll just try to run that 1.5 faster each time.


I step off the treadmill and, with a stop by the drinking fountain, I pop open my locker for my weight gloves. A long walk around the herd of ellipticals brings me to the rack of barbells, my first stop. I’ve left behind the twenty-pound weight, and pick up the thirty for a round of arm curls to get me started.

This is not the fast-paced churn of running, legs tangling and untangling with greater speed. No, here I get to watch the muscles work in slower motion as I face the mirrored south wall. I’ve never been especially strong in my upper body, but over the past two months I’ve already put on a respectable bit of muscle. My ritual includes closing out my night with a protein bar and some jerky, easily thirty-five grams for my body to grow on.

But not just yet. Now I am moving the metal bar up toward my chest and back down; I can feel where the muscles in my back and shoulders and arms and chest have all responded to this old-new stimulus. Seventeen-year-old track runner me would have been jealous; I’m already planning for when I move up to the forty pound weight. I’m squatting forty later tonight, and my quads tense in preparation.

I ran faster when I was younger; I don’t know that I could do an eight minute mile now. But what I lose in speed, I make up for in strength and stamina. There is no peak to my body; there is only change, and evolution. And, yes, eventually there will be decline in more respects than speed–but that’s an opportunity to become more proficient in other body-ways.

Perhaps in my golden years I shall explore the fine art of being slow.

The Litany of Nature; Or, Time For a New Journal

Townsend’s chipmunk.
Bleeding heart.
Chicken of the woods.

Earlier this month I experienced an important milestone: I filled up my hiking journal.

Most hikes I’ve gone on in the past seven and a half years, I’ve toted along an increasingly battered, well-loved spiral-bound blank book that was a gift from my aunt who has always indulged my love of journals. The covers are decorated with art by biologist and artist Heather A. Wallis-Murphy, rendered in lovely watercolors. (I highly recommend her journals, cards and the like on her website; you’ll need to order via snail mail, but it’s totally worth it.) And the pages are nice quality paper, perfect for jotting down notes and sketches.

Old man’s beard.
Sword fern.
Douglas squirrel.

I first started writing in this journal in September of 2007, a few months after I moved to Portland and began exploring the wilderness areas in the Columbia River Gorge. I was just getting into neoshamanism at the time (that’s about when I started blogging at Therioshamanism, the predecessor to this blog). So my excursions into wild places were punctuated by spiritual impressions and beings and meanings, and my journaling reflected that. There were rituals, and meditations, and other things besides simply hiking. There were reflective essays on how I’d developed since the last hike, complete with “Here’s where I am now, Journal!” walls of text. I did record the animals and plants I recognized; only a few at first, but more over time.  Still, those took a backseat to the longer-form writings.

As the years went on, the content of my entries changed. They were less about “me, me, me!”; instead, the focus shifted to more observations on the world around me. In my previous relationship which I’d been embroiled in at the start of the journal, I’d gotten into the bad habit of navel-gazing so hard that I ended up processing in circles. The same problems kept coming up over and over again, but ultimately were never solved (hence the end of that relationship). I began doubting the effectiveness of all these abstract symbols of the wilderness, and thinking maybe–like the constant “internal work”–they were distracting me from what was really important.

Fly agaric.
Lobaria pulmonaria.
Mountain chickadee.

It took years to finally get to the point where I felt I could admit that what I really needed wasn’t what I had been striving for–a more structured neoshamanic path. Instead, I yearned for a falling away of abstractions and symbols and other things that distanced me from the purest manifestation of nature. I required nothing less than immediate and direct contact with the physical world, not in myths or superstitions, but in soil and species and the ever-shifting clouds overhead. I wanted only the deepest, least cluttered connection I’d had as a child, when the sacredness of nature first became known to me. And so I lost my religion, and in doing so gained the world.

My journal entries shifted as well. I stopped trying to wax eloquent on theology and the dramas of my everyday life. Instead, I began to do more listing. Animals. Plants. Fungi. Even geological formations. Everything I noticed and could identify, I made note of. Even if I didn’t know the exact species, I took note of field marks and looked it up later when I was home with a reliable internet connection. It didn’t matter that no one else could read my horrible chicken scratch scribbled handwriting. What was on those pages was the blossoming of a curious mind that had been entangled for decades.

Red elderberry.
Common raven.
Black morel.
Sandhill crane.
Red admiral.
Maidenhair fern.
Cooper’s hawk.
Miner’s lettuce.
Evernia prunastria.
Steller’s jay.
Skunk cabbage.
Mule deer.
And more.
So many more.

journals2In the years since that shift, my time in the woods has been better, more productive, more calming. I no longer care whether that bird I saw was really a spiritual messenger and I shouldn’t offend it. It is enough that my path crossed with that of another living being, one I might not get to see in my everyday sphere of existence. I no longer try to map out the Upper, Middle and Lower worlds. I content myself with vast, interrelated ecosystems, more full of wonder and magic than I had remembered from childhood.

And in my journal, I could trace that growth. My lists of beings I could identify was no longer a small handful, but dozens, and with many more to be learned and known and understood. Animals were no longer the main focus; I beheld entire systems, of which the wildlife was only one part. I recorded my excitement at seeing a new-to-me species or a behavior I hadn’t witnessed before. And I became hungry for even more.

My new journal is another Wild Tales creation, this time with eagles as the theme. It is pristine, but for the first few pages. These carry the memories and lists of my Oregon desert adventures, transcribed over from temporary paper while the journal arrived in the mail. Already the corners are a little bent from being shoved into my day pack in my subsequent hikes; my name and number adorn the cover, just in case I lose it somewhere. I suspect I’ll fill it up a lot quicker than the last one. I’m hiking more often, and I have a lot more to record. There’s the litany of nature to record, after all.

Yellow-headed blackbird.
Sunburst lichen…

More Oregon Desert Adventure Pictures!

I took over 500 pictures while I was stomping around the desert last week, so here are a few more of my favorites. Enjoy! (Click the pictures for bigger versions.)


Here’s another shot of the Columbia from Celilo Park. (Not pictured: gulls, crows, and tourists.)


Down the Columbia toward the Dalles. Really lovely area and a great view.


I really love sagebrush country. I took sooooo many pictures of sagebrush. Here’s some of it along the Deschutes River near the Columbia.


The sky was pretty remarkable, too. These were the vanguard of a storm system that would move in overnight.


The appropriately named Antler Inn in lovely Ukiah, OR (population 230).


I love collecting locations of 45th Parallel signs. This one is the furthest east I’ve found, along highway 395 south of Pendleton.


Fox, OR is a near-ghost town in the middle of nowhere. There are still a few people living there, but most of the buildings are shuttered like this one.


The gravesite of Eveline Cozad, who passed away in 1884. Definitely one of the most unique monuments in the Canyon City cemetery.


A wonderful little antique shop in the historic streets of Canyon City. Go chat with the owner, Jim, and check out the lovely old knickknacks and bits of history.


The Swick Old Growth Interpretive Trail is an oasis within the logged and farmed areas in and around the Malheur National Forest. It’s a nice loop, less than a mile, that goes through old Ponderosa pine forest, complete with a section that’s been subjected to 100 years of fire suppression, and one that’s been treated with controlled fires to help “catch up” and cut down on unnaturally thick undergrowth.


The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge has a small museum stuffed full of bird taxidermy, including this enormous trumpeter swan.


Here’s one of the pronghorn does I saw down near Steens Mountain. They’re one of my favorite critters, the last of their kind.


While the east side of 205 was wildlife refuge with sage and other such things, the west was mostly pastureland that had been heavily grazed for decades.


Tuesday was the stormiest day of my trip; while my time at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was sunny, the further south I went the more I ran into skies like these, and rain shortly thereafter. it was amazing watching the storm systems rolling over miles and miles of open land.


Smith Rock State Park is a geological adventure. The huge cliffs towering overhead are volcanic tuff (now heavily eroded) from explosive eruptions 30 million years ago. That ridge of darker rock on the left, though–that’s a basalt flow from almost 17 million years ago, known as the Steens Basalt. HUGE floods of molten lava traveled from far to the east, and bumped up against the already eroded tuff, then cooled into the basalt you see today.


Juniper trees are all over the Oregon desert. Unfortunately, due to fire suppression they’ve expanded far beyond their historical range, choking up sagebrush plains and soaking up much-needed water.


Asterisk Pass is one of my favorite formations at Smith Rock. Bet you can’t guess how it got its name.


You could do a rock scramble over Asterisk Pass (ropes are strongly recommended) but then you might miss beautiful views of the Crooked River, like this one.

Again, all in all this was one of the best excursions I’ve made in a very long time, and I’m already eager to get back out into the wilderness. Alas, I need to do some work here at home; art needs to be made, writing needs to be written, etc. But I’ll remember my paramour, the Oregon desert, and go back for a visit as soon as I can.

Oregon Desert Adventures, Days Three and Four

I had had grand plans of blogging my adventures as they happened, and as you noticed I managed to keep you caught up on Day One and Day Two. By the end of Day Three, I was just too damned tired to do anything other than hunt down a bit of food and get some sleep in my hotel room. Here, then, is the remainder of the trip.

Morning broke cool and overcast in Burns as I prepared to head even further south. I’ve always wanted to visit the Steens Mountain area, and not just for the mustangs! So I headed out 205 into the wilderness. The first few miles were mostly farmland–but then I rounded a bend, and got an AMAZING view of the valley below. It reminded me that the Great Basin does indeed extend well into eastern Oregon, and that I was in new-to-me territory. Farmland interlocked with sagebrush fields, and the craggy outcroppings of browned basalt looked over it all.

There were also dozens of red-winged blackbirds in attendance, including these feasting males.
There were also dozens of red-winged blackbirds in attendance, including these feasting males.
I had planned to go straight down to Steens–but then I saw a sign that would change my day completely. It announced the presence of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and there was no way I was going to pass that up! So I headed down the six mile road to the refuge headquarters just to see what was there. I was expecting more sagebrush and maybe a little outpost; instead, I found vast flooded fields and a large pond teeming with birds of all sorts. The headquarters were in a lovely building with a wide wooden deck festooned with bird feeders of all sorts. The feeders were in turn festooned with birds of all sorts, along with an assortment of Belding’s ground squirrels. I managed to add a few new birds to my birding life list, including scarlet tanagers, American goldfinches, and my very first sandhill crane, who was perched on her nest on the far side of the pond.

I spent a good two hours there with camera and binoculars, asking questions and also picking up a field guide to North American butterflies. I know a few species, but I’d love to be able to identify more, and this one had lovely illustrations and nice organization of field marks. And I like being able to patronize these parks services; gods know they need the funding. I tarried long enough to have lunch while black-chinned hummingbirds (another first!) zipped around my head on the patio, then I regretfully headed back to the car. I could have spent the entire day there, but this trip was mostly about identifying places for further in-depth exploration, and I had some distance yet to go.

buddiesBack out onto the road–I had been tipped off by the volunteer on duty that there was a golden eagle nest down the road across the highway about a mile. I found myself bouncing down a corrugated gravel road between farmland and high basalt walls. I never found the nest, but I did make the acquaintance of a large paint horse and his burro buddy. Because of their skittishness, I’m guessing they may have been former ferals; they were curious enough to come up to the fence when I stopped to take their picture, but startled back a bit when I stepped a bit closer. The BLM adoption corral isn’t too far away, either. Still, they were photogenic enough, and I was sorry to say goodbye.

I never saw any wild horses, though the weather wasn’t especially cooperative, and I mainly stuck to 205 rather than heading deeper into Steens territory. I did, however, get to see a pair of pronghorn antelope. They raced alongside the highway, and I remembered how they evolved to outrun the now-extinct North American cheetah. Eventually they decided they needed to be on the other side of the road. The barbed wire fences on both sides presenting something of a problem; pronghorn are runners, not jumpers, and so rather than leaping over the barriers they shoved themselves under the lowest wires. Unfortunately they were not the most graceful critters, and the hastier one ended up going tail-over-teakettle while her more patient friend carefully slipped through with little harm.

rainI drove for another hour or so, simply enjoying the scenery and keeping an eye out for the absenteee mustangs. I did get a close encounter with some yearling beef cattle on the road (thankfully I didn’t hit any of them, and nothing was injured but their dignity). And I got to see a pair of turkey vultures relaxing on a rock by the roadside, bright red heads beaming above black feathers. There was the additional pleasure of watching the rain roll in across the landscape from miles away, and scattered patches of sunlight beaming down through holes in the clouds. Nothing quite compares to smelling sage and petrichor as the desert drinks deeply.

Eventually I decided to turn around; the rain was coming down harder, it was getting late, and I wanted to overnight in Bend. So I turned back, gave a nod to Frenchglen as I passed back by the old hotel, and wended my way back up 205 and across 20. I had the best night’s sleep I’ve had in weeks in a little hotel, and awoke the next morning ready for one final hike before going home to Portland.

crookedriverI’ve been to Smith Rock before, but at the time I wasn’t able to do much hiking. This time, though, I set aside the day for it. I love the Crooked River that flows through the park; on one side high crags of volcanic tuff tower overhead, while on the other a ridge of slow-flowing basalt lazily decays over time. While sagebrush and junipers proliferate in the area, the river is flanked by horsetails, poison hemlock and other water-loving plants, and gives home to mergansers and mallards, orioles and robins, while bald and golden eagles soar overhead. It’s a truly magical place–though it was choked with tourists even on a Wednesday afternoon.

Still, it was a fitting end to a beautiful vacation. I made note of trails I wanted to explore in the future, and as I trudged my way back up out of the canyon a raven croaked off in the distance, dancing on the wind that flowed over the river. I carried that feeling back home as I transitioned from sage scrub to conifer forests, and a pair of those midnight corvids danced over my car as I approached Mt. Hood. This was just a scouting trip, I reminded myself. There’d be time enough in the future to get to know all the places I’d been–and more–in more detail and intimacy.


Oregon Desert Adventures, Day 2

Time-Sensitive Note: The Tarot of Bones IndieGoGo ends in a week! If you haven’t yet backed it, you still have time to claim some awesome perks 🙂

Monday morning broke open with a haze of clouds and regret that I hadn’t brought my white noise machine with me. The hotel I was in was nice enough, but the neighbors were somewhat loud and someone decided to fall asleep with the TV on. I managed well enough with a white noise video on YouTube, but I miss my little cocoon of familiar static. Still, I got enough sleep to get up and going in the morning (with a quick trip by the continental breakfast).

My initial plan had been to head over to Boise and then come home by way of John Day. However, I found myself really disliking the idea of continuing down I-84 and wanted something more rural. So I dropped down 395 and headed south all day. My goal was to get to Steens Mountain on Tuesday, so my Monday was a leisurely wander from Pendleton down to Burns.

cabinIt was a day of many stops along the way to satiate my curiosity. When I was growing up, our family trips were all Point A to Point B with no stops in between, and only to go see family. I spent many hours wistfully looking out the window at signs advertising everything from tourist traps to state parks. Once I got out on my own I started making up for those missed opportunities, and these days even the heavily-laden trips to vending events often include stops at antique shops and the like.

When unburdened, though, I’m like a dog with my nose to the ground–“Ooooh, what’s THIS, and now I want to go over THERE, and I think I’ll get going again except OOOOOH THIS SEEMS AWESOME!” And it’s soooo worth it. Today I discovered many treasures I would have missed otherwise if I was just driving to get from Point A to Point B.

I mean, no sooner was I out of Pendleton than I saw the sign for McKay Creek National Wildlife Refuge, and of course I had to go take a look. Since it’s post-migration there weren’t a ton of birds there, but there were some black-billed magpies with their flashy black and white coloration, and mourning doves cooing in the morning light, and California quail shuffling off into the grass. I made a note to come back later in the year when there would be more water birds. Not that the day was completely devoid: not even a mile south I pulled over on the side of the road and got out my binoculars to watch two dozen American white pelicans circling overhead on a lazy thermal–a spectacular addition to my birding life list! I also saw a hovering American kestrel and a red-tailed hawk along the roadside.

battleDriving down 395 is like an ecological layer cake. You mostly alternate between second and third growth Ponderosa pine forests, and scrubby sage and juniper deserts, with some farmland and pastures thrown in for good measure. It’s a truly fascinating experience because the shift from one biotope to another can literally happen as you turn a bend in the road. So it was that after miles of wheat and cattle, I found myself at a little campground on Battle Mountain, so named because it was the site of the last conflict between the Bannock tribe (who had retreated here from Idaho) and US troops, with some unwanted spillover onto the local Paiutes. I felt more comfortable here than at Celilo, in no small part because I was the only person in a field full of empty picnic tables.

After lunch, I drove on, more than once pulling onto the shoulder to snap photos of falling-down old cabins. I made a brief foray into lovely Ukiah, OR (population 230), then tarried a bit longer in Fox, a near ghost town with a few old buildings, a beautiful 19th century church, and a lovely old cemetery. In fact, cemeteries were something of a theme; once I passed John Day and went into Canyon City, I had to go up and check out the graveyard there, including the old Boot Hill where two horse thieves and a pair of prostitutes, all from the old mining times, were buried apart from everyone else. The main cemetery was rather lovely, with some gorgeous old markers. I had to cut my visit short, though, as I could see rain rolling in across the land.

rainI did stop in old Canyon City where the buildings dated from the early 1900s. I took some pictures, then ducked into an antique shop where I bought some agate slabs and gabbed with the owner for a good hour or so; he’s a truly fascinating person who’s lived there for sixty years and has quite a lot of stories to tell. By the time I left it was getting late and the rain was beginning to fall harder, and I wanted to get to Burns at a reasonable time.

But there was just one more stop–as I drove down the highway, I saw a sign for Swick Old Growth Interpretive Trail. How could I pass that up? I’d outrun the rain a bit, so I decided to chance the weather. And it was worth it, for I found about a half mile loop of nicely paved trail with a series of informative signs about the old growth Ponderosa forest I was in. It was absolutely full of birds; I heard woodpeckers and mountain chickadees high up, and got some really good views of western bluebirds in the lower branches.

And now with a hotel room key and food all arranged, I’m relaxing from another lovely day. Tomorrow–Steens, and perhaps more!

Unnamed outcasts buried at Boot Hill, Canyon City, Oregon. Long may they rest in peace.
Unnamed outcasts buried at Boot Hill, Canyon City, Oregon. Long may they rest in peace.

Oregon Desert Adventures, Day 1

So I’ve been planning to take a few days off for months now. 2015 has been an absolutely crazy year so far, and I haven’t had a proper retreat. I’ve been itching to get back out into the desert, so I decided to take a solo excursion for a few days on Oregon’s drier, less rainy side. My partner is holding the fort down back at home and making sure the garden doesn’t dry up, and for the next few days I’m free to roam!

This morning I headed out I-84; I’d never been further east than The Dalles, so this was going to be new territory for me. While I loved seeing the forests of the western part of the Cascades, I was relieved to see things shifting more toward Ponderosa pine than Douglas fir after Hood River, and in a few miles I could see the broken cliffs of basalt edging the Columbia River Gorge poking through the grasses.

columbiaI stopped briefly at Celilo Park; this is the place where Celilo Falls was flooded when the Dalles Dam was completed in 1957. The nearby village of Celilo was the oldest continuously occupied location in North America until that point, with a 10,000+ year indigenous history, but it too was lost in the floods. This tragic history was in stark contrast to the park, where dozens of (mostly white) families camped and picnicked in apparent ignorance. I took a few photos, and then left, too sad to stay any longer.

I then trekked up to Deschutes River State Park, where the Deschutes and the Columbia meet. Here was my opportunity to get some hiking in! There’s a system of trails that more or less parallels the Deschutes for several miles. I opted to start with the Upper Trail, which led me through sagebrush, wildflowers and grasses, and past the occasional willow tree. I saw several species of butterfly, scrub jays and ring-beaked gulls, and a young black-tailed deer bounded through the grass behind me.

trailAfter about a mile and a half I headed downslope to the river again, and sat in the shade to eat my lunch. I watched the gulls skim over the water, and damselflies flitting back and forth. Then I decided to head back by way of the river trail–not such a great idea, as it was heavily overgrown with hemlock and Himalayan blackberry (and the occasional poison ivy). I cut back up to the sage brush as quickly as I could, and had a mostly unremarkable hike other than a sighting of a Western rattlesnake (at a safe distance).

My hike complete, I drove on over to Pendleton past countless enormous windmills; I bid farewell to the Columbia around Hermiston. And now I sit ensconced in my hotel room, resting up and planning my adventures for tomorrow!


Hiking Report: Rowena Plateau

2015 has been kind of a tough year for hiking for me. Since the start of the year, I’ve had events almost every single weekend, many out of town. And so I had to concentrate my time at home on work-related things, as well as keeping the apartment in some semblance of order. This meant I often ended up skipping my weekly hike–not a good idea, especially with the stress of travel!

However, April opened things up quite a bit; I have a lot of open time until midsummer, so I’m making the most of it. Earlier this month I went on a group hike south of Molalla with the good folks from Rewild Portland. I don’t do a lot of group hiking, just because I tend to go at my own pace, but it did end up being an excellent experience, with a lovely waterfall and a rubber boa and lots of good rewilding tips.

Last Friday I finally got to go on a solo hiking trip for the first time in ages. While I like hiking with other people, I’m much more comfortable on my own. It’s more refreshing, with only my own pace and agenda to attend to. And I like the quiet of solitude. Even though there were other hikers out on Rowena Plateau, we were far enough from each other to not feel crowded.

molallacemeteryMy first stop, though, was in nearby Mosier, OR. I love historical plaques, and the one that caught my eye as I drove through this little blip on the map said there was a pioneer cemetery up the hill. Sure enough, a three minute walk in the dust brought me to a little collection of mismatched stones from the late 1800s and early 1900s. It’s kind of a sad little place; there are more people recorded to have been buried there than there are stones, which means many go unmarked. And there’s a surprising number of younger people there, from babies to twenty-somethings. Not that this is surprising; it was a tougher time, with a lot less medical care and no vaccinations against common diseases. But the view is lovely, and it’s well-tended without being covered over in unnecessary green turf.

Rowena Plateau itself was a much more involved adventure. I’ve summited Tom McCall Point before; it’s a steep climb rife with poison oak, so I opted to go the easier, flatter route to enjoy the wildflowers. And they were out in force! I confess I don’t know my desert flowers so well; I can recognize arrowleaf balsamroot (a perennial favorite of mine), California poppy and bachelor’s button, and I met some desert parsley as well. But I enjoyed even those I couldn’t put a name to (and got some pictures for later identification.)

bachelorsbuttonIt’s also an excellent place for birdwatching. Turkey vultures cruise low over the plateau on thermals, and white-throated swifts nest on the cliffs below–they’re all over the place! There are a couple of ponds hidden along the trail where red-winged blackbirds ply their trade, the males making their characteristic “conk-er-jee!” territorial call. I even got my first confirmed sighting of a sharp-shinned hawk with the boldly striped tail. And a few ravens chortled at me as I walked by.

I find deserts to be deeply compelling; they feel wide and open, as though I could roam forever on their expanses. But they’re also an important reminder of how precious water is; just a few little ponds dotted the landscape, and the places where they trickled over into tiny streams were marked by explosions of yellow and white flowers. One can look out over the Columbia and be thirsty, for all that water is out of reach on top of the plateau. Let us then be thankful for tiny ponds and rivulets of flowers.

trashAfter a few hours rambling around the plateau, I headed over to Mayer State Park to have a bit of communion with the Columbia. I sat on a gravel spit with my toes in the still-chilly water and watched a pair of Brewer’s blackbirds go about their business in the trees behind me. I noticed a beer can and a fishing lure on the ground near me, so once I was done soaking my feet I went back to the car and got out one of my SOLVE bags. In under an hour I had the bag half-full, mostly with picnic detritus and knots of old fishing line. (Once a SOLVE volunteer, always a SOLVE volunteer, I suppose!)

I’ve been anxiously awaiting spring all winter, and this was an excellent “welcome home!”, to be sure. The next couple of months are fairly low-demand as far as out of town events go, so I fully intend to make the most of the time close to home. I had a nice conversation with the plant totem Arrowleaf Balsamroot; we spoke about how while it’s good for me to have a solid set of roots at home, even I need to sometimes stretch up toward the sun for special occasions. Plants don’t flower every single day of the year, but when they do it’s cause for celebration. In the same way I don’t spend every day on the trail, but when I do it’s something to be joyfully anticipated.


Totemism 201: Why Going Outside Matters

My apologies for the lack of posts as of late. February into March is generally a busy time for events in my vending and speaking schedule, and I’m just now entering a period where I’ll mostly be at home. I still have plenty of other things going on here in Portland, and the Tarot of Bones is still eating my life, but if all goes well there’ll be more blog posts. In my last post I said we were going to talk about a different topic. I’ve got one that’s really prominent in my head right now, though, so I’m going to cover it instead.

So in my travels over the last several weeks I’ve tried to get out into wilderness places at least a few times. I went hiking at Ed Levin County Park in San Jose while I was at PantheaCon, and on my way back home I stopped for a few hours to walk and drive around the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. Just this past weekend I did a bit of a birding hike at Minnehaha Falls Regional Park while in Minneapolis for Paganicon. All of these were excellent opportunities to appreciate species of wildlife I don’t normally get to see in Portland, and especially to appreciate the spring migration of dozens of species of bird.

I learned a lot in those excursions, but an experience at home helped to solidify some thoughts I’ve had about why this is so important to my totemic path. This morning I woke up just around dawn; my sleep schedule’s been a bit out of whack with all the travel through time zones and whatnot. So I headed into the living room to start checking email, and to enjoy the morning drama at the bird feeders on my porch. I have both suet and seed feeders, and it’s normal for me to get a variety of tiny feathered dinosaurs ranging from scrub jays to pine siskins to Northern flickers coming by for breakfast.

I’ve also recently discovered eBird, a joint effort by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society. It’s a website that allows you to record your bird sightings, and I’ve been registering my feeder visitors as they show up. One of the entry fields asks for the sex of the bird, if you have that information handy. Some are pretty easy to discern–a male dark-eyed junco in Oregon looks very different from the female, being darker in color. Others, like scrub jays, have little to no sexual dimorphism. I’ve had a few Northern flickers by yesterday and this morning. On first glance the male and female look very much the same–brown with black barring on the back, and a black “bib” and spots on the chest, with either yellow or red shading on the the tail and wings. I wanted to be able to discern whether I had males or females–or both–showing up, so with a quick bit of Google research I found that the males tend to have a red or black spot on their cheeks.

Why is this important to totemism? Because the presence of both sexes indicates the strong possibility of nesting nearby, which means I can also keep an eye out at area trees for nesting holes and, if I’m lucky, young peeking their heads out as they get a bit older. Sure, I can also look up videos and articles about flicker family dynamics, but there’s something about getting to see it in person that I think would make my understanding of Flicker as a totem more full and vibrant.

See, the “meanings” of animal totems (here’s why I don’t like that concept, by the way) are largely drawn from the animals’ behavior and natural history. Scrub Jay was the first totem to greet me as soon as I moved to Portland almost right years ago, and its bold, brash curiosity was infectious as I began exploring my new urban home. Moving is always a stressful experience, even when it’s for positive reasons, and I’d spent a year in Seattle becoming progressively more depressed and unhappy. Rather than sinking deeper into that because I had to start all over in a new place yet again, I found myself drawn out into the world by a brilliant blue and gray bird.

And over the past eight years I’ve made more of a study of the natural history of this area, both Portland and beyond, from geology to climate to the various sorts of flora, fauna and fungi found in each place I’ve explored (and some I’ve yet to set foot in). I’ve deepened my connection to the land that’s embraced me, and I’ve created more substantial relationships with some of the totems here as well. I feel invested in this place and everyone who lives here, and I give more of myself than ever before.

Many totemists, especially newer ones, rely on totem dictionaries and feedback from on-topic internet forums and groups to get their information on what a totem “means” or whether an animal sighting was a message in disguise. While these can be useful at the beginning, eventually you have to drop the training wheels and figure things out for yourself. I’ve long said that what a particular totem tells me may not be what it tells you, and so coming to me and asking “What does Brown bear mean?” or “I saw a blue jay today, what does that mean” is useless. All I’ll tell you is to ask the totem itself, because that’s a relationship between the two of you.

And a big part of developing that relationship involves going outside–or, for those unable to do so, at least watching/listening/etc. from the window. Hell, barring all else there are books and documentaries and websites on all sorts of natural topics. Nature spirituality is meant to be about our connection with everything else, not just the human-dominated portions of the world, and if you only immerse yourself in dictionaries and forums you’re going to miss out on a lot. Going to wilder areas where we’re less of an influence serves to illustrate just how much we’ve affected the world around us, and what we stand to lose if we keep up our destructive ways. You can look at photos and video, but there’s nothing to compare with seeing it with your own eyes if you’re able to. A picture of a clearcut is devastating, but it’s nothing next to actually going out and walking through a devastated landscape where a forest has been torn down, being completely surrounded by shattered trunks and earth scraped bare.

It’s that sort of experience that helped me move from a “all about me” approach to totemism to a more balanced give and take. Totemism isn’t just about us, as I’ve talked about already, and in my next post I’ll be talking about why giving back through offerings and otherwise is crucial to one’s totemic practice.

A master list of Totemism 201 posts may be found here.

Did you enjoy this post? Please consider purchasing one or more of my books on totemism and related topics! They include more in-depth information on working with totems, to include topics not discussed in this essay series.


I know, I know–I’m interrupting the Totemism 201 series. But it’s for a really, really important reason. Forgive the clunky title; I couldn’t come with something better in my overwhelming excitement.

So last year I wrote “Up North“, a bittersweet post about the sense of adventure that I felt in the woods near my childhood home and the devastation when they were torn down for yet another crappy subdivision. Before they were completely destroyed, though, I managed to make my way into their northern reaches and discovered things I’d never seen before–a small pond, new fields and patches of oak trees. This sense of expansion and adventure has haunted me in my dreams for over twenty years now; I’ll dream that I’m back in those woods, heading northward. Sometimes I’ll end up in jagged, wild mountains, sometimes the realm of fey beings, sometimes deep pools of crystal-clear water. But in every single dream, that passage north takes me to new places, and my heart aches every time I wake up.

At the end of the post, I wrote the following:

Occasionally I get to have just the tiniest taste of “up north” in my waking life, and I hang onto those moments like gold. On my most recent excursion to Catherine Creek on the Washington side of the Columbia River, I took the less-traveled trail up under the power lines and then up the ridge on the east side of Catherine Creek itself. There was no one else up there, the trail was tiny and quiet, the views were amazing, and the day was absolutely perfect weather-wise. Although I know quite well that this was far from uncharted territory, the experience of being on this unmarked trail I’d never been on before, with no one around, and with no agenda in mind raised that old feeling of adventure again. (I was even going north, to boot!) It’s been a couple of weeks since that time and I still feel the glow. I intend to go back soon, too, once this latest spate of rain passes us by–it’s a bad place to get caught in a thunderstorm (as I almost did my first time out to Catherine Creek a few years ago).

Perhaps someday when things relax a little more here and I have the time and money to get out for a longer time I’ll go find a wild place I can explore. Not so wild that I’m in danger of getting lost, but remote enough that it can just be me and the wilderness, my feet on wide, open ground ready to explore.

And maybe then I’ll get to go “up north” again.

Today, I went for my first long hike of the year. I’ve not been running for several months so I’m in rather atrocious condition, but I’ve been walking a lot in the past week to start getting my endurance back. I’m not up for a ten mile stomp, but I needed something more challenging than a two mile round trip walk to the grocery store. We’ve been having unseasonably warm weather here lately, and while I’m not entirely happy about it in the long term, I decided to take advantage of it today. I chose to go back to Catherine Creek.

Catherine Creek is a picky place. It’s on the eastern side of the Cascades, which means that storms can suddenly rise up from the south, and the trails are on high ridges with little shelter. This means that, especially in winter, I have to choose my day to go carefully to avoid getting caught in rain or, worse, snow and ice. Moreover, many of the trails become choked with thickets of poison oak from April through November, which reduces the opportunities to explore them. And because it’s an hour drive from Portland, I have to plan an entire day away from home. But it’s by far one of my favorite places to hike, and well worth the coordination.

Today was almost ideal: nothing planned schedule-wise, and a zero percent chance of rain with temperatures near fifty. Even with the unseasonal warm weather the poison oak is well dormant. I had a full tank of gas, and an eagerness to explore the narrow little trail heading north along the ridge east of the creek itself where I’d gone last year. This was my chance.

And it was perfect. I followed the trail beneath the power lines, then up the ridge, higher and higher, gaining over a thousand feet of elevation in less than two miles. I passed through scrub oak groves and wide, open plains, startled a trio of blacktail deer and a flock of Steller’s jays that rasped at me angrily as I passed. I listened to the creek rush down below me, and heard ravens arguing in the distance. Every so often I turned around to make sure I could still see the trail behind me; it was less than eighteen inches wide, but it stood out as a dark line through the pale dead grass.

My little trail continued up and up, until the trees gave out and the summit of the nameless ridge beckoned. By now I had passed far into where clouds had settled on the land, and visibility had gone to just about fifty feet. I could still see my trail, and the deer trails that crossed over it. I noted the prints of another hiker who must have passed this way over the weekend, the hooves of deer and the pads of a small coyote. I checked the time–just about 1:30pm–and debated whether to go off trail to make the last couple hundred yards to the summit. There was little wind, but the mist was thickening the higher I got, and the trail disappeared into the distance.

I wouldn’t go any farther back into the wilderness, but I wanted to see the summit off to my left. So I tied a length of toilet paper to a dried plant by the trail–bright white in the gloom–and made my way through the grass. I got perhaps two hundred feet before the mist obscured anything that wasn’t within about thirty feet, and I was still not quite to the top. No mind; I was close enough for today. I took a moment to savor this new place, though I could see little of it, then retraced my steps, clear in the grass, until I saw my white flag of bathroom tissue in the distance, and retrieved it as I headed back the way I came.

I quickly made my way back down the ridge; though it was still hours before nightfall, the mist was gathering, and I wanted to at least get back to where I could hear the creek; once I had that I could find my way back to the trailhead even if I lost the trail itself. The ridge was kind to me, and within less than half an hour I was back below the clouds with a clear view all the way across Catherine Creek’s deep valley.

I was exhausted, unaccustomed to this level of exertion, and a bit anxious about getting completely socked in so long as the mist surrounded me, but my exhilaration carried me safely through. As I made my way back down through the oaks–so much like my long-gone woods of my youth–I knew I had finally captured something lost to me for over two decades.

And I’ll be going back. The Catherine Creek Day Use Area is protected by the US Forest Service, and because all it hosts are little scrubby oaks and Ponderosa pines, it’s of little commercial value, so unlikely to be logged or otherwise developed. So this beautiful area that has embraced me will be there as long as I am willing to come back. There are so many trails left to explore, too, both mapped and unmapped. I would have long ago outgrown my last few acres of woodland as a child, but this–this is the size I need now, as a healthy, adventurous, roving adult woman exploring the world around me.

This is it–this place has given me what is Up North.