I’d only been back from Spain three days before I headed to the mountains to a place my heart calls home. When Camino-induced foot pain hobbled me, and I didn’t think I could walk another step, thoughts of Breitenbush Hot Springs renewed my flagging spirits. I planned this retreat long before leaving for Spain thinking a week in the woods would restore my body and hopefully, in keeping with their motto, bring my life back into balance.
Breitenbush was the first place where, many years before, I’d taken my first-ever retreat as a new Oregon transplant from the East coast. Here I learned the art of self-care, of listening to that tiny voice of guidance within, and the value of taking time out of life. Walking the labyrinth, soaking in the natural stone tubs, and laying prone in the sanctuary under towering, ancient cedars showed me how to surrender and let the earth and the Divine hold me up. This week was meant to be my reward for walking the Camino, sweet relaxation after so many miles of walking.
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At daybreak, the distant roar of white water awakened me. A smile crept across my face from the pride of having braved a night in a tent alone. At dusk the evening before, a barred owl had visited me and hooted over my tent. Whoo-cooks-for-you? Whoo-cooks-for-you-all? he asked over and over. Weren’t owls an omen of wisdom and clear sight in darkness? I felt graced by his presence and protection, finding the courage to face my fear of the dark. Now the morning’s swirling birdsong called me out of my cozy bed. As I dressed, pulling on socks and pants evoked memories of my morning pilgrim ritual, and a powerful urge to keep walking surged through my bones.
Located high in the Cascade mountains, the center’s gorgeous trails surround the area and meander along a glacially-fed river. That’s where I’ll walk. I decided to do the whole seven-mile loop.
Despite the lush beauty of the wilderness, walking alone in the woods terrifies me. Oregon is home to cougars and bears. If this fact wasn’t enough for my overactive imagination, occasional reports of attacks and close calls fed the fear. I don’t like finding myself smack dab in the middle of the food chain.
Despite my clear intention relax and replenish for a week, the hike called me. I’m stronger now, I thought. I walked across Spain, for crying out loud. I can do anything. Why the heck not face all of my fears? Certainly I couldn’t be that hard to be alone in the woods. Besides, I thought bravely, the likelihood of encountering a wild animal is so low. I’m sure it will be fine.
Tightening the laces on my well-worn trail runners, I set out, feeling every bit the happy pilgrim-self again. The first mile was beautiful, a soft dirt trail winding along the river and its gurgling tributaries. Crossing log bridges, I followed the signage through stands of old growth cedar, fir, and hemlock. The high, broad canopy dappled the forest floor and ferns with polka dots of sunlight.
When the ascent began, everything changed. Away from the river, the air seemed drier and a spooky quiet settled in. Not even a breeze rustled the treetops. Wild rhododendrons formed a dense understory, absorbing sound and blocking any view of the forest around me. My contentment vanished. I grew anxious. To ward off any large creatures waiting around the next corner, I began to sing aloud.
Higher and higher, the trail narrowed and foliage reached into the path. As I passed, a branch snapped back and it me. I yelped in alarm. On edge, I heard a sound that stopped my heart in my chest: a growl. A bear. I was sure of it. Ice cold sweat covered my body. Oh, my God. I knew this was going to happen. I knew it. I’m going to die now.
My heart thudded wildly. Do I keep walking? Hide? I couldn’t tell from what direction the sound had come, and I couldn’t see anything. Just keep walking. The adrenaline fueled me forward.
I gulped air as I tried to keep singing, “Birds flying high… You know how I feel…” Feeling Good was such an ironic song choice. Several agonizing minutes later, I still hadn’t seen the creature. Any creature.
I began to calm slightly, when I heard it again — only this time the growl had a clear source: a diesel engine revving in the distance.
“Ohmygod!” I laughed, exhaling with relief. Not a bear. The retreat center’s construction crew must have started their morning shift — and the big backhoe — and the sound traveled easily up the river canyon. I’d never been in danger.
When I had my wits about me again, I reflected on my “brush with death.” How often I take tiny bits of information and spin them into a wild worst case scenario, consequently raising my blood pressure sky high. This ability to invent something awful from nothing squelches my ability to be happy and present.
The walk I was on surrounded me with fifteen-foot rhododendrons blooming in frilly pink profusion, and all I could think about was how I might die between the teeth of whatever lurked behind them. I had totally missed the beauty.
The only thing keeping me from happiness are my thoughts.
Although I couldn’t will myself to cease feeling anxious, I spent the rest of this hike focusing on the beauty of small details around me. The forest floor opened up again and the trail became difficult, but I noticed sunlight shimmering through a cobweb, spied a plate-sized mushroom growing overhead, and heard the trickle of new-born streams.
The present is where life’s gifts wait to be discovered. The past has its allures and the future its uncertain opportunity, but that growl in the bushes might just be a blessing. This lesson wasn’t lost on me; I spent the rest of my week in the mountains soaking in the spring-fed hot tubs, rather than hiking the forest — just in case.