Lessons From Dog Mountain

At 2,800 feet elevation, I came upon a meadow of brilliant wildflowers. The path was just wide enough to sit and so I settled in the dry dirt and pulled a pint of just-picked Oregon strawberries from my backpack.

I could see for miles – straight ahead, over the Columbia River Gorge, the jutting tree-lined mountains of northern Oregon. Peeking out from behind that ridge, the snowy top of Mt. Hood. And to the south, a line of snowy crags so still and strong in the sunlight, that I couldn’t help a quick intake of breath.

I tried not to look down for it was a scary plunge. I quelled my innate fear of heights and turned my face to the sun. I’d climbed a mountain.

And along the way, I realized some essential lessons from Dog Mountain. On my steep ascents and gradual declines, this is what I took away.

* On the narrow, rocky trail, don’t look up or down. Keep your gaze straight ahead. It’s the only true perspective.

* Keep your mouth closed. Not only is there nothing you could possibility say at this moment of import, too many creatures are quick to fly in.

* There is no such thing as right of way on the trail. Hope for kindness. You will inevitably get it.

* Imprint the smell of fallen pine needles, golden from the sun, in your memory.

* For that matter, breathe so deeply that the scents of forest – pine, moss, chalky dirt and fragrant wildflowers – fully penetrate your soul.

* Try not to think, and turn your Blackberry off. Nothing manmade is better than a mountainside.

* Remember that you crossed a border to get here. Then remember that borders are a creation of the mind and concentrate on the view.

* Be happy that you can do this. Be supremely happy.

* Love the zone. Adopt the zone as your home page.

* Don’t forget a pen. But if you forget to bring a pen, don’t fret. Write your noticings in the dust with a stick or record them in your memory.

* When you get to the point on the trail where you say aloud, “I am fucking exhausted!”, keep going. Every opportunity is a gift, and this one is as if in a big box with gleaming red ribbon.

* Breathe deeply. Breathe like you never have before.

* Pay attention, but don’t obsess. It is never worth it. And remember that when you get back to your car.

* From this elevation, sweat trailing along your skin, stop by a tilting tree covered in a fur of moss and listen to the wind. Listen to the birds. Listen to the river coursing its way through the gorge.

* When, near the top, you hear the waterfall, don’t lament that you cannot see it. Let its voice soothe you along your way.

* When your parents take this trip, do not send them on this hike. For that matter, don’t take your kids here until they are husky teenagers stronger than you. There is no way you could carry the baby up this mountain. (And that is when you realize it is not a mother’s job to carry her baby up the mountain. It is her job to teach him to climb it himself.)

* When you start to think about your ex-husband frantic with the kids back home, or feel guilt for enjoying your week alone while the kids miss you, put the thought out of your mind. Your ex will finally reckon with his own path, and you will take your children on a trip like this in time – or they will take themselves on such a trip because you have set the bar yourself – and you will be happy then, too.

* Of course, if I had known how difficult this would be, I never would’ve done it. (“That’s what I thought,” said Brandon at the front desk of Hotel Lucia, who sent me to Dog Mountain. “But I’m so glad I did,” I said and he smiled.) One needs blind ambition to get ahead because if we ever really knew what lay in store, we’d never try.

* As the slope angles at a severe degree and the rocks beneath your feet stumble from under your grip, there is no point in being afraid. Fear is what we reserve for those moments when we have nothing else to do. Or when we want, desperately, to exert control. One thing you learn from climbing the 7-mile loop of Dog Mountain trail is that control is an illusion and fear a crutch. You have the ability to do just about anything.

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