We went for a hike on Thursday. The garden is mostly done except for a few lettuce plants and a small plot ready for the garlic. Oh yeah. Pull up the fading sweet peas, say adios to the glorious clematis and kiss the one volunteer sunflower goodbye. Not yet, I tell them, not today. Summer comes to an end soon enough in Driftwood Canyon. Today I’m going into the mountains.
Which means I can ignore the itch that drives me upstairs this time of year. The itch and that damn caterwauling on the landing, the cat telling me to get my arse up there and into the chair. Or she’ll find something precious to knock off my desk.
I’m in that miserable stage of a writing project where a dozen ideas are roiling around inside what passes for my mind, and I’m scared to begin because once I do, well, all sorts of possibilities are lost. So hiking is a great distraction. It’s perfect this time of year. No mosquitoes. Not too hot. The flowers are mostly gone, but the colours of fireweed, huckleberries, willow and those red-leaved blueberries light up the alpine meadows.
The trail we pick is a gentle one – it follows the northern contour of Harvey Mountain with lots of views across Driftwood Creek to the mountains on the other side. No snow yet, and great swathes of red and yellow. An iron streak right through the mountain range. The roar of the creek fades as we climb high above its passage. A varied thrush lifts off the trail into a sub-alpine fir, letting us get a clear look. We hear them ringing all spring and summer, but rarely see them as anything but shadows. A male spruce grouse, its red eyebrows still visible. Across the way, two mountain goats and then two more.
When you’re walking, though – climbing, sweating and puffing – it’s not all wonder and delight. Hips hurt, feet stumble, and you find yourself thinking about writing after all. The doubts that ring louder as you get older: the growing pointlessness as you see what a broken place the world is, what broken creatures we are. The millions of words thrown out to see what they might hook.
You never know when writing might bring you to a sense of intense connection and understanding – the words feeling like wisdom from a far off spectral being – but often you wonder just what the hell you’re doing as those words shiver and dissolve. Forgotten.
So too the trail. You find moments of pure joy when everything clicks and your feet feel a passage created by thousands of footsteps following the same path, some of them your own. How it takes you across a precipitous traverse and deposits you in wildness. In beauty, the blueberries sweet in your mouth. The trail opens you up, even if sometimes it’s rough, sometimes wet, cold, and sometimes frightening: the huge bear scat purpled by the same kind of berries you’ve just eaten. The fear that makes wildness what it is. The fear that gives any good writing the edge it needs, the fear that underlies everything we do. Knowing it will all get along just fine when we’re gone.
But, oh god, that feeling.
That fist in the air hurrah when the trail emerges into the glorious alpine meadows we get around here. The feeling when the writing falls into place, all the dead-ended game trails, all the boot-soaking bogs, the bruised shins and blistered feet forgotten. That feeling when it not only makes sense but makes the new kind of sense you want to study a bit farther. Use as a prism to refract what you think you know into something different, something bigger.
It’s always worth it.