The cabin stays dark, even after I switch on the lights. A soft yellow glow bathes the brown wood walls. Even though we haven’t made a fire in the deep blue metal woodstove, the cabin gives off a faint aroma of smoke.
The room is cold, the way I like it. I’ve pulled on a favorite thick hooded black sweatshirt and stretchy blue yoga pants over my summer pajamas, even though it’s August. At this high elevation, feet above the roaring McKenzie River, nights and mornings feel like November.
My husband Richard is snoring in the bedroom at the cabin’s front. The narrow room has enough space for a queen bed, nightstand, and a half-foot passage along each wall. I’ve gotten up early so I can sit quietly in the living room and write.
Until two years ago, Richard and I were living a few hours away, in Portland, Oregon. Our home is in Northern California now. We left Oregon because we couldn’t stand the nearly constant rain. In the three years we’ve lived in California, the state has been mired in drought.
We have come to McKenzie Bridge, Oregon in part to see water. We’ve only been in the state a few days and I’m stunned by all the green.
Mostly in a good way, being here has unsettled me. Coming to the mountains, or any place away from city lights, is akin to a retreat. Quite simply, this is a place for me to heal. It is my therapy. My church.
The healing begins here in this rustic cabin, surrounded by massive Douglas fir trees, with a view through the sliding glass door and an even better one from the deck of the frothing McKenzie River. I can hear the river inside, even with the door to the deck and all the windows shut. It roars like the Pacific Ocean or a fierce windstorm. Though I’ve never stayed in this cabin before, one of three vintage wooden structures set high on the bank above a sandy beach fronting the river, I feel as if I’ve come home.
I suffer from a low level melancholy, clinically known as dysthymia. When stress, disappointment or losses pile up, I sink further down, sometimes low enough to be classified as major depression.
As if depression weren’t bad enough, I have also been diagnosed with a general anxiety disorder. This means I worry, about everything and nearly all the time.
Years of therapy have helped. Those fifty-minute sessions gave me tools to continue healing. Breathing, meditation and mindfulness. Walking, as well as walking while doing a walking meditation. And most especially, being in nature, outdoors. Though I rarely sink down as far as I once did and have created a better life that doesn’t wound me as the old one did, I understand that living with depression and anxiety is my lot in life. Living with are the key words here, healing the path.
Healing brings me to this cabin in a town that is nothing more than a gas station, convenience store, a couple cafes, and scattered cabins and campsites. The healing I seek embraces me as soon as we exit the interstate. The road shrinks down to two lanes that wind lazily around the turns. Green predominates, but then gets broken up by the blue of lakes, rivers and streams.
The cabin is exactly as I’d hoped. I listen to the river, open my journal and sit quietly, my pen poised over the blank, lined white pages. For someone accustomed to the dull flatness of depression or the nervous whir of anxiety like me, feeling contented as I do now is a thrill. The sensation, strangely enough, borders on sorrow. Sometimes when I’m in this state, I need to cry.
And what would I cry about here? A gratefulness, I suppose. Often, I feel this way after a dark time suddenly lifts. But away from the city, knowing we will spend the day on a remote trail or kayaking across a mountain lake, I can count on the feeling. That is why I have come.
Clear Lake sits at the headwaters of the McKenzie River. Even in August, Clear Lake remains icy cold. Its color is like no other I’ve seen in any lake’s waters, a deep dark emerald green. When sunlight strikes at a certain angle, the lake shimmers a velvety blue bordering on black. In some places, Clear Lake’s waters descend to a depth of over one hundred feet.
Our second morning at the cabin, Richard and I hike the trail around Clear Lake, which we have hiked before. Having lived outside of Oregon these past three years, the hike now feels new.
The first part of the hike takes us through a conifer-filled forest high above the lake to a bridge that traverses the spot where the McKenzie flows into Clear Lake. Richard and I stand on the bridge and marvel at the clarity of the water and the astonishingly clear reflections of the trees.
After the bridge, the trail enters the trees again. Every so often, narrow spur paths lead down to small beaches. We follow several to glimpse the lake from different angles. Each viewing is worth the effort, since we get close-up looks at the water’s clarity a long way down.
I think about this clarity as we trek through the silent forest. Just looking at the lake cheers me. When I’m locked in depression, I am imprisoned in a small windowless cell with no hope for release. Whatever I am feeling, no matter how painful, I will feel the rest of my days.
Looking at Clear Lake, hiking the dirt trail that at times turns more rocky than dusty, watching my olive green boots step down and lift up, the path appears open-ended. I can observe my mood here, rather than letting it control me. I also have the option of not thinking at all, focusing my attention on the breath traveling in and out of my nostrils and lungs, matching breath to the rhythm of walking.
Suddenly, the trees open up. We’ve reached a vast black lava field. The sparseness of the cooled black rock seems out of place next to the lush lake. Though mostly bare, the rock contains cracks where plants appear. Trees with leaves turning orange and yellow rise up here and there out of this lunar landscape.
The trail cuts through the rock, going up at times, then winding down and around. Because the path is jagged, I have to pay attention to how and where I set my feet down. This is perhaps the most healing part of hiking. My usually uncontrollable mind moves into Zen-like focus here, since I have no choice.
Walking on this jagged lava rock requires picking my way from spot to spot. I can easily picture myself falling down, my knee scraping the point of one of these rocks and the skin being sliced open. My breath slows and I use the breath for balance. Each time I set my boot down, I do so deliberately, before picking up the opposite one.
There is nothing on my mind now but walking. I carry a lightweight pointed walking stick for just such terrain and create a rhythm with the stick, each foot and my breath. Like the Zen master painter who can no longer distinguish himself from the act of painting, I am one with my hiking. As I focus only on this one thing, my mind is serenely calm.
Because the walking takes all of our concentration, Richard and I stop from time to time to gaze at the lake. We are both moved by the beauty of the scenery, which in turn makes us happy to be together. We smile and kiss, then decide to scout out a flat shaded spot where we can eat.
As if by magic, a few minutes after we start hiking again, a wooden bench appears. It rests in the shade of an enormous cedar tree, with a million-dollar view of the lake.
The simple peanut butter and jelly sandwiches I’ve made on hearty whole wheat seeded bread taste like gourmet fare. Eating perched on this stunning lakeshore makes ordinary food taste extraordinary. I can’t imagine wanting to be anyplace else.
Two days after our hike around Clear Lake, we set out on the water for the first time. A year ago, we bought a two-person, bright white inflatable kayak. This portable vessel has given us a whole new way to experience the natural world.
We paddle slowly out to the center of the lake. The deep emerald water is calm, a flat mirror reflecting the trees and clouds. Richard has made an anchor from one of my ten-pound weights and he drops it into the water. Unfortunately, several wildfires in the state have blown a thin white layer of smoke over the sky, hiding the view of snow-capped Mt. Washington out beyond the lake’s eastern shore.
I’m not sure which of my various conditions is the cause but I have never been good at idleness. My inability to relax is a side effect, perhaps, of my mind’s constant gnawing over small issues I worry into big problems. I sometimes think it stems from a lack of close family.
Ever since we bought the kayak and began taking it out on mountain lakes, I have noticed a change. It’s as if someone gave me permission to slow down, to stop and do nothing but be right here, floating on a pristine lake, noticing the trees along the shore and the ospreys soaring overhead, scanning the water for fish.
We are also here to catch fish, something I never imagined I would do. Of course, my involvement in the actual mechanics of catching fish, which happen to be rainbow trout, is minimal. Richard untangles the fine line on my fishing pole, decides which bait we should use, and attaches the bait, often a bright pink or chartreuse blob of evil-smelling stuff, to the tiny but dangerous hook, and hands me the pole. If I feel a tug on the line after casting into the water, he guides me through, so I am successful in setting the hook and reeling in the writhing trout that Richard then traps in the net.
Mostly, I’m thrilled to be able to just enjoy sitting here, being idle. It’s a small but significant sign that my healing has progressed, even though I don’t presume to think I’ll ever be cured.
I have wanted to hike along a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail during our stay here but it won’t be worth doing if the sky and mountain views remain hidden behind layers of white smoke. Our last full day here has arrived, though, and we decide to give it a try.
It turns out that the winds shifted direction overnight. Now, smoke is being blown away from this area, instead of toward.
We follow the narrow winding old highway between McKenzie Bridge and the small charming town of Sisters as it heads into the Three Sisters Wilderness. The sky through the Douglas fir trees is that heartbreaking blue only seen at higher elevations. The going is slow, the road shaded by evergreens, with sunlight here and there forcing its rays through.
Miles up the road the trees open up and then disappear. The road cuts through a huge black lava field stretching out on both sides as far as the eye can see. In the distance, to the north and south, scattered craters appear. Beyond the craters, snow-covered peaks rise up. The closest mountains are the Three Sisters. The day is so clear we can see Mt. Hood, miles to the north.
We turn off the road just beyond its highest point at McKenzie Pass, onto a bumpy red cinder path that we follow out to the trailhead. The parking lot is nearly full, as most entries onto the Pacific Crest Trail probably are this time of year.
Even though the lot suggests otherwise, we barely see another hiker after we set out. The trail enters an old-growth forest and gradually climbs. We’re here for the views, so I’m impatient to get through the forested part, though I remind myself to be more mindful and enjoy the hike.
As I knew it would, the trail finally leads out of the woods onto an open lava plain. At this point, the path runs along the edge of a ridge.
To the north on my right, I see the distant peaks, Three Finger Jack and Mt. Washington. They’re lovely but up ahead is the real treat. At the end of the black lava, rising into a deep blue sky, is South Sister. Her flanks are black, the top snow-covered. This close, the mountain’s massive size makes me want to prostrate, Tibetan Buddhist-style.
I feel as if I’m at the top of the world. Richard and I hug and then, as we often do in grateful appreciation of nature’s gifts, we applaud.
Further up, the trail drops down and the final treats emerge. North Sister and below, Upper McClure Lake. The lake reflects North Sister’s beauty right back to her.
We find two large flat rocks on shore to sit and eat our lunch. The wind is strong, so we anchor our napkins and sandwich bags, to keep them from flying off. Every so often, decidedly grizzly-looking hikers toting enormous backpacks pass by. From the looks of them, we figure they are hiking the entire Pacific Crest Trail.
None of them stop to take in the view. And that makes me ponder something. There is a difference between hiking to reach a goal and hiking to heal. Healing requires me to take in every moment of every view, since I know that clear days in my life can sometimes be rare. Regardless of what I have suffered, though, and the pain I may endure after today, I want to be as fully present and grateful in the moment now as I can.
Patty Somlo’s most recent book is Hairway to Heaven Stories, published by Cherry Castle Publishing. Her previous books, The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing), have been finalists in the International Book Awards, Best Book Awards, National Indie Excellence Awards, and Reader Views Literary Awards. She received Honorable Mention for Fiction in the Women’s National Book Association Contest, was a Finalist in the Adelaide Voices Literary Award for Short Story, and had an essay selected as Notable for Best American Essays 2014. Find her at www.pattysomlo.com.
© 2016, Patty Somlo