Last weekend I went up to Mt. Hood with some friends to do some wandering around along the tree line on the South side of the Mountain. I’ve been heading up to Mt. Hood off and on for the six years I’ve lived in Oregon, and I’m just starting to get a feel for the lay of the land and the rhythm of the seasons as elevated by a few thousand feet.
Where we spent the day, at about 5500 ft., there had been some good snow about 10 days ago, but it was all gone by the time we parked the car at Timberline Lodge and wandered West. Winter is coming faster up here than down below, but it’s not here yet.
It was a very cloudy morning, and the ski-lifts were kind of ghostly as we passed under them in the first quarter-mile. It’s much easier to stay oriented up here than on some other parts of the mountain, though, even with limited visibility. North is (more or less) uphill, North is the peak; the drainages all run straight down the mountain. The open space and bear grass mixed in with the scraggly trees in the weak soil up there make for good sight lines, too.
In the areas without grass, there were a bunch of rodent tunnels criss-crossing each other just below the surface of the ground. Pocket gophers, I think. Aside from that and a few gray jays we hung out with after lunch, though, our closest wildlife encounter was with a slightly smaller tunneler, a dead Townsend’s mole. I’m not sure how the little guy met his end, but it didn’t seem like it had happened too long ago. I’m also not sure what he was doing out in the open above ground, because it was clear from looking at him what I already had in the back of my head about moles – they are built for tunneling.
I’ve seen pictures in books, but had never gotten a chance to look at a mole so closely, and those front paws made a big impression. Can you imagine the way you could dig if your hands were the size of your head? That long nose is neat, too, and I guess it’s pretty useful if you’re always in the dark, trying to gather as much information as possible about what’s right in front of you. My field guide says they eat bugs and grass roots, and that “earth worms are major prey” for these ferocious creatures. It actually does say they’re ferocious — ferociously territorial, and that they’ll fight each other to the death over turf. I suppose when you can only deal with what’s directly in front of you, it must be particularly important to know nobody’s coming from the side, or behind.
As the sky cleared around mid-day, we dropped a couple hundred feet to the Pacific Crest Trail and followed it to Zigzag Canyon for a view. None of us had ever made it there before, and I was particularly glad to finally see it after spending a few years working in the little hamlet of Zig Zag, about 4000 feet down and about eight miles West-southwest. When people asked me about the name, I repeated what I’d been told – that it’s named after the the Zigzag river, which runs out of the bottom of Zigzag Canyon, and starts at Zigzag Glacier. I’m not sure in what order those things were named, because another story I heard was that densely forested area was called Zigzag because of the people who passed through it on the Oregon Trail. When settlers came to it in their wagons after the more open, easygoing forest on the East side of the mountain, where they could easily travel in a straight line, they had to zig and zag around fallen trees, monster rhododendrons, and other obstacles to get where they were going.
In any case, the canyon was gorgeous, especially in the late-day light that now comes at four o’clock. We got back to the car in time for a beautiful sunset sky lighting up the low clouds and the silhouettes of Mt. Jefferson and the Three Sisters in the distance.
Metablogging: If you’ve bothered to read this far, you may be wondering why I’ve written about my hiking trip on my cooking blog. Good question. My answer is that as I’ve been working on this, I’ve decided it is not a cooking blog with a clever name, but actually my notes for the next year of my life. I do love eating and cooking, and undertake a lot of food-related projects, but I do plenty of other things that I need to keep track of in order to improve on this year, and going outside is one of them. The guiding theme for the whole thing is just going to be my basic life strategy of learning by trying, evaluating, adjusting, and repeating.
My outdoor explorations are not productive they way my kitchen experiments are – there’s nothing I make by being outside that I can evaluate on texture or flavor. I see my outings as part of a large and nebulous project, though, which is slowly honing my ability to open my eyes in the woods, look around me, and know what’s going on.
At my job, I can glance at an email and and know what’s going on. I go instantly from my computer to the characters on the screen to the person who wrote them, to the organization they work for, to it’s relationship to the organization I work for, to how this does or doesn’t affect what I need to do in the next hour, next week, and next year. When I look around in the forest, I often just see woods, which is about the same as looking at my inbox and seeing a computer that’s turned on. So I’m working on this, the same way I’m learning to cook steaks – do it (go into the woods and look around), evaluate (what do I see?), adjust (I’ll see better next time, remembering what I’ve seen before) and repeat. This is a substantially broader and more daunting project that producing the perfect jar of apple butter, but luckily, I have the rest of my life to work on it.