Return to Cooper Lake

Cooper Lake sits in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest near Salmon La Sac, Washington. Not particularly high for the Pacific Northwest, seated at the base of the Alpine Lakes, offering views of snow capped Chikamin Peak and Lemah Mountain. The mountains around here feel endless, though this spot is not true wilderness, defined in one dictionary as simply a pathless area, a wild or uncultivated state, a bewildering situation. I am waking here alone this July morning for the first time since starting to camp here in ’92, when I was a rising poet, Kurt Cobain was still alive and Washington was only DC, wanting to touch base with what I know these mountains teach.

I have spent many slow hours here watching the forest wake, first beside a boyfriend who became my husband, then my husband and children, then with my children as we divorced and they grew, and now me, alone and a dog, a white shepherd like the one I traveled across country with, when it all still felt like adventure. There is a wide openness to my life now that is in some ways bewildering, how I came to be by myself under these trees, circling back through seasons and years, a girl and a book, dog, same camping shirt. Sun rises with a specific slow gravity, hitting the still-snowy range across the cold water first, then the tips of the Douglas Firs around our site, trees tall enough to be warmed by that sun while exhalations near earth stay visible. I know no other mornings like these.

This forest is vast, western, stretching 180 miles from the Canadian border to the Goat Rocks Wilderness. We leave early on a Saturday, make the 5:20 ferry off our island, cross the Salish Sea, grab dog, food, water. We park, we set up camp, the dog is happy. The tent I have brought is unfamiliar,  cannot find my old LL Bean four-man, right now need to travel light for I am in love with someone who is not, and who would be the best company here of all the company I can think of. Have come today to outrun what desire I can, force freedom into my cells, get out of my head on this whole thing and the state of the world. Turned a half century last year, and the only certainty I have about lessons is that they repeat and return until learned.

Smaller backpack, the run to Pete Lake, the hikers we pass who ask how much further. We keep running, fording narrow creeks, waving insects away, establishing a rhythm. After the first flat green half mile, through cedar and fir, the glacial lake to the left, the landscape suns up. That is the only word I can think of for it, when you are one minute deep in forest and then moving higher, boulders bigger, the way you feel the heat on the back of your neck, the way the smells change and the borders of alpine blooms appear-lupine, paintbrush, fireweed . High ice clouds cast sun dogs. Path keeps rising, to the right, the first real climbing rock, the dog scrambling to top first. I sit to try and just feel it, the sun warmed rock, hands on moss, not think about the rest, shut it down to raise it up. There is a different kind of need to be fulfilled, oxygen, getting the body to the place in movement that is immediate and necessary, stripping us down.  Already that which I could not let go of is leaving me, washed away by the wind in trees and my own breath.

By the time we make Pete Lake, the day has warmed, and we wade into the water, cold enough to take breath away but welcome. The dog stays on shore, watches me float on my back, staring up at clouds and sky, then warming on a fallen log. We eat our lunch, rinse one more time, run down the mountain the way we came, build our fire, stare at stars you cannot see from the city through tree boughs, watch the sky turn, rest our bodies. There is a freedom in waking there, every muscle cold against the ground, dog curled into herself and my legs. The sunlight touching the start of the day, the highest trees first. Turned fifty-one this year, how everything in life has changed and yet here I lie, curled up next to a dog in a tent because to be here, all trees and rock, cold water and slow light, is the one sure way out, every time.

It is this we have come for, the teaching the mountain always shares. Submerge in what is elemental, move your animal body, keep things fluid, take only what you need. The days and seasons will take care of the rest.  What I have come to be relearn, complications fading when offered peak and river. Rushing water and fir scented air washing everything clear. Again and again.


Gimme Shelter

Protection, shield, cover, roof.  Shade, security, defense, refuge. Sanctuary. Asylum. Safe keeping.  Haven. Safe haven, sanctum, house. Port in a storm, bolt hole. Hideaway, retreat.  Shelter can be anywhere. What we create, not made of wood and steel, but rather this gnarled tree or that one. The way they say you carry your stories on your back and in your heart, that you are all you will ever need to make of yourself, a home.

Make of yourself a home, and of course in the great green growing wide world are all kinds of homes, stick, branch, mud, fur, bone. And in those homes certain other kinds of homes, mites on feathers, and inside those mites bacteria and then cells, back out again, through the skin and into the sunlight and air.

The way looking down through the shelter of our too high cedars (the ones that crack in heavy snow, the ones we are asked to evacuate for every time there is a windstorm) at my roof you would see the shingles and moss, the holes where the rats got in, the place where the birds made their nest, you would see your way past the darkened pipe of the uncleaned chimney and into the attic, past the rodent chewed parasols and old moving boxes, the insulation nests and nailed boards to the light switch beside the handle where the string gets pulled to create stairs, until you would be standing next to my youngest son’s room, his own home in there, with the tree of vinyl 45s stapled to the wall, incense on windowsill, the door shut, headphones and music all the time, the messy bedding, a small mountain of covers filling the well between the  wooden frame my father painted and the clothes on the floor.

That too, a kind of home, where the brain injured cat sleeps and snores, and then again through the floor, past the water stain from the tub leaking and into the living room, where two more blankets create another type of port, a shelter that is of everything and the building place for everything else, the grey great couch where you might nap to shut out the world and heal, a place to dream harder than before.

First the grey fleece blanket an eighteen-year-old gave at Christmas, as a soft thing to hold while napping, because he now can see how tired you can get, because finally the right medication and therapist, and able to move beyond his own bleakness at last.  And if you had known what he was like, and the struggles and struggles to get here, the fact of sleeping under this gift, this woven warm and safe embrace would be true haven.

And lying on top of that grey gift, the first quilt your mother ever made, her stitching it one of the few things you might remember of Canada before the move, the red white and blue a celebration before the fact, the way the weight of it is exactly right, how seams around the edges are unraveling, how each child slept underneath it at times, in pairs or alone. The weight of both of these things driving you down into the deepest naps, where whole villages and lives are lived and lost and beautiful and forgotten and you will rise from them as if through water, the red light through eyelids before coming to.

Then you might rise from your nap, and head back out into the world beyond the walls, with your obedient dog by your side, and rising too from the fog that envelops after deep sleep, watch the dog stretch and head for the door, find your Bean boots, the leash, the door and a key. Need to beat the school bus home so quick glance at phone for work email then past the mailbox, on the gravel where we stay during daylight, to the field and then the forest, now the trees are turning, now the pussy willows out and then the old growth. Mossy branches and puddle, the side path you cannot see unless you know it is there, the quiet air, thick with forever.  

Then faster comes the light in the turning of the year and one day the puddle is gone and the moss is translucent and the path is thorns-grown tighter and so it all spins, in and out, over and year, we circle the sun and the moon circles us and we rise and we rest and we dream and we work and we dream and we rest and we rise and the moon circles us and we circle the sun and the sun moves the named planets and all around that sun a thousand more suns and beyond them still more and then back in again, the rushing blood, heartbeat, the pulsing cells. The way one thing becomes another and you fall through, rising.