The Bridge of the Gods
"[At the Cascade Locks library] you can catch up on all the gruesome news you've been missing while out on the trail."
The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 2: Oregon & Washington, Wilderness Press, 1979 edition
Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, "whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches," by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, "Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men," and he would have meant the same thing.
Steinbeck, Cannery Row
I walked along a section of the Historic Columbia River Gorge Highway making my way into the town of Cascade Locks, one of the few trail towns the PCT passes directly through. An older man stood a few dozen feet off to the side of the road, obscured by tall grass and trees. I thought he was a thru-hiker at first but then realized he was most likely homeless. He appeared shaken and fearful.
I rented a small cabin on the opposite end of town, the first time I would sleep indoors in over two weeks. I ate at a restaurant overlooking the Columbia and then stopped by a bar for a drink. During my visit, the kitchen messed up someone's pizza order which in turn went directly to me, the hungry thru-hiker, free of charge. Later I passed by a drive-in and paused to look over the menu before continuing on towards my cabin, planning to return later for dinner. A woman approached me as I departed.
"Are you passing through? Are you hungry? Would you like to eat with us?" she asked.
I'm not sure if she recognized me as a thru-hiker and was offering trail magic or if she thought I was a hungry vagrant, staring longingly at a menu before moving on, unable to afford a meal.
"Actually, I'm stuffed," I told her. "But I really appreciate your offer."
Steinbeck writes in Travels With Charley "that a stranger's purpose in moving about the country might cause inquiry or even suspicion. For this reason I racked a shotgun, two rifles, and a couple of fishing rods in my truck, for it is my experience that if a man is going hunting or fishing his purpose is understood and even applauded." In the same way, I suppose my identity as a thru-hiker made my purpose understood, at least to those who had any clue what the PCT was. Thirty or forty years ago I would imagine it had been quite different and a filthy, unshaven hiker wandering into Cascade Locks out of the woods was apt to arouse suspicion. Nowadays, however, I caused little concern. My trekking poles filled in for Steinbeck's fishing rods and my purpose was at times applauded, garnering me the offer of a meal from complete strangers.
Back in my cabin I turned on the television and watched CNN. I was met with a barrage of dismal and unsettling news. Tensions between Israel and Palestine had escalated. There was an ebola outbreak in West Africa. A new Islamic terrorist group named ISIS was gaining a hold in Iraq. Grim footage played across the television screen: people being marched down to a riverside where one by one they were brought to the river's edge, shot in the head and thrown in the water. A line of people lying flat on the ground as a man with a semi-automatic rifle walked by littering them with a spray of bullets. Groups of people being led into a prison. "All of the men you see here ended up being executed," explained the voice of the news anchor. The ISIS leaders had sent a message to the United States. "Don't be cowards and use drones. Send over your troops and we will humiliate them as we have humiliated them before. We will raise the flag of the caliphate over the White House."
There were refugees hiding out atop a mountain ridge, hoping for food to be air dropped. The only way off the ridge was by mule trail, at the bottom of which stood men with guns waiting to murder anyone who came down. I was overwhelmed with guilt - irrational guilt perhaps - but guilt nonetheless. My day began as I hiked past a homeless man, after which I rented a cabin and stuffed my face. I was given free food. I was offered more free food. I wandered free of worry through idyllic natural landscapes while people around the world suffered. I walked in the mountains for pleasure while Iraqis hid atop ridges, certain death awaiting them should they descend. Yet when I descended from the mountains I found food, drink, lodging and hospitality.
It was also hard not to feel like a parasite at times. We thru-hikers walked unburdened across the land as others enabled us. We were given rides to and from town. We were given food and shelter. People drove long distances down dirt roads to stock water caches and coolers full of soda. Using the tide pool metaphor of Cannery Row, we were the parasites and trail angels were the other half of the commensal relationship. What really did we give back in return? We were like the paisanos of Tortilla Flat who depended on others for sustenance or Mack and the boys of Cannery Row living off of Lee Chong, Dora and Doc.
In Tortilla Flat, Malory's Arthurian legend serves as a basis for the structure of the book. Steinbeck deftly and subtly mirrors the exploits of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table with those of Danny and his friends. It may seem an odd parallel, but as Joseph Fontenrose writes, "the knights were no more industrious and productive than Danny's band: the fact is that they too lived on the products of others' labor. In reading Malory we are now and then reminded that lands which other men tilled gave the knights their living. If these amiable and idle paisanos are parasites, so were the knights. If the knights were courteous men, so are the paisanos." He also observes, "Even the paisanos' habit of sleeping in the open likens them to the knights, who often lay down in a forest or by a well ..." The knights slept in the forest, as the paisanos slept in the forest, as we thru-hikers slept in the forest. So too did the homeless, the vagrants and the gutterpunks I encountered in trail towns such as Mojave, South Lake Tahoe, Mt. Shasta and Cascade Locks. It all depended on which peephole one chose to peer through - one may find inspiring thru-hiker, valiant knight or lowly bum.
I didn't feel so guilty as I hiked - simply moving through the mountains and forests, not necessarily adding anything to society but certainly not taking anything from it. Steinbeck observes in The Log From the Sea of Cortez that "only in laziness can one achieve a state of contemplation which is a balancing of values, a weighting of oneself against the world and the world against itself. A busy man cannot find the time for such balancing. We do not think a lazy man can commit murders, nor great thefts, nor lead a mob. He would be more likely to think about it and laugh." Of course the thru-hiker is not physically lazy, but others might certainly view him as an unproductive member of society. We were busy with hiking, but we had all the time in the world for contemplation and balancing.
It's when I was in a town spending money, being consumerist and gluttonous, that I felt the guilt well up inside me. Before the trail, living in Seattle, I led a simple and frugal life, renting a small studio apartment and surviving on a meager salary. I was fairly content, yet I did feel some sort of societal pressure to aspire for more.
"It has always seemed strange to me," said Doc. "The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second."
"Who wants to be good if he has to be hungry too?" said Richard Frost.
"Oh, it isn't a matter of hunger. It's something quite different. The sale of souls to gain the whole world is completely voluntary and almost unanimous - but not quite. Everywhere in the world there are Mack and the boys. I've seen them in the ice-cream seller in Mexico and in an Aleut in Alaska.
Steinbeck, Cannery Row
While watching CNN once again later in the evening, contemporary scenes of violence and despair were replaced with those from nearly fifty years ago in a documentary on the 1960s. The assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. The riots after King's death. American cities burning. The war in Vietnam. I watched footage of Bob Hope visiting troops in Vietnam. "I'd like to go home for Christmas, but I don't like violence," he joked with dark humor. I found comfort in a cynical and pessimistic way, reminding myself that things have always been in turmoil. Things weren't getting worse, I told myself, its just the way they've always been.
It has been observed by critics that the informing spirit of Cannery Row is Lao Tzu's classic Chinese text the Tao Te Ching. Both were written in a time of war and endeavor to present a system of human values devoid of all qualities that could bring about such war in the future. Steinbeck claimed to have written the novel for a group of WWII soldiers who wanted something funny to read, something that wouldn't remind them of the war. It certainly seems a carefree and humorous book, but under the surface, especially in the short "interchapters" that Steinbeck includes, there is an undercurrent of failing, sadness, loneliness and death. Cannery Row's central metaphor is the ecology of the Pacific tide pool, a world Steinbeck describes as both "lovely" and "murderous." There is a direct link between the tide pool's marine inhabitants and the human community of Cannery Row. Those two ecologies are depicted as both beautiful and violent, and scene to reproduction, birth, decay and death alike. Similarly, the beauty of my thru-hike existed within that same violent world chronicled in the news each day.
In an essay on Cannery Row, Peter Lisca writes that "Taoism rejects the desire for material goods, fame, power, and even the holding of fixed or strong opinions - all of which lead to violence. Instead man is to cultivate simple physical enjoyments and the inner life." Robert S. Hughes, Jr. elaborates, "To be obscure is to be wise; to fail is to succeed. In human relations force defeats itself and laws are a form of violence. The moral is one of inaction." The thru-hiker, of course, has little need for material goods, other than what he carries on his back as he engages in the "simple physical enjoyment" of walking across the landscape and the rich "inner life" provided by weeks and months in the mountains, often alone with his own thoughts. Though I appreciate the sentiment, the idea of holding no fixed or strong opinions seems to me too drastic a step in one direction. Where would the human race be without people who acted for positive change, stood up for what is right and defied what is wrong? I suppose the point of that Taoist notion lies in the fact that right and wrong are both subjective positions and that someone caught up in the idea that they are righteous can purvey violence just as much as peace. ISIS, I'm sure, is convinced of the validity of their beliefs. So, in a way, the thru-hike could be viewed as a Taoist pursuit. I wasn't doing much to help others, but at the same I was doing nothing to harm anyone or anything. It was a feeling tinged with guilt, but nonetheless it felt good. In moderation, I enjoyed the neutrality of my anonymity and solitude and the wisdom of my obscurity.
I must admit, as I closed in on Washington there were more than a handful of times I fantasized about no longer having to hike in the heat, no longer having to be constantly thirsty, no longer having to wake up each morning to hike. But as much of a cliche as it was, in those final weeks I felt a sadness that it would all soon end. I felt a deep gratitude for being able to experience the PCT and at the same time to be able to afford to stay in that comfortable cabin in Cascade Locks - to rest, to have privacy, to eat and to drink. The euphoria of reaching civilization was like a drug. As I realized earlier in the trail, I loved the delayed gratification of thru-hiking - finally getting something after I'd been waiting so long, only to deprive myself of it again. It struck me as a simple way to be happy - not to reject things entirely, but to enjoy them in great moderation; to not always get what you want instantaneously, to restrict yourself, to wait, to be patient and to be appreciative.
At some point after I had completed the trail I read about an experiment. In it, scientists conditioned monkeys to recognize a trigger that signified an ensuing reward. At first, a taste of fruit juice on the tongue released a burst of pleasure and dopamine within the monkey's brain. Eventually the flash of a light was introduced just before the fruit juice was given and the monkeys came to understand what it signified. They came to anticipate the fruit juice and ultimately the surge of dopamine began to release as a result of the flashing light, rather than when the juice was actually tasted. In the end, the thought of the reward proved more pleasurable than actually receiving it. Just as back at Shelter Cove in Oregon, after joyful anticipation of a cold soda and ice cream, when I actually obtained them I thoughtlessly consumed and they were gone before I ever even thought to savor them.
There is a concept referred to as the "hedonic treadmill." We humans constantly seek out pleasure, but the pleasure does not last. We must keep walking just to stay in the same place. Robert Wright, in his book Why Buddhism is True, theorizes that, by way of natural selection, humans can never be content even after achieving what they desire. Through evolution we evolved to avoid pain, seek pleasure and never be satisfied. Our constant desires and the fleeting nature of pleasure is what keeps us on the treadmill, prevents complacency and perpetuates us as a species. It also helps us to deal with unchangeable circumstances in our lives. Just as we do not achieve what we want and continue for the rest of our lives in a state of perpetual bliss, when we experience loss or trauma we, for the most part, do not live out our days in unending despair, but rather eventually reset to a base point of emotional equilibrium.
I wondered if walking the treadmill of the PCT helped me enjoy and appreciate things more. I sometimes failed, as I had back at Shelter Cove, but for the most part I stayed mindful of savoring a warm meal, a cold drink and a comfortable bed. And even if by human nature the desiring of those things proved more pleasurable than their acquisition, at least out there on the trail, by delaying gratification for multiple days on end, I was in effect prolonging the pleasure. I wasn't enlightened enough to escape the constant cycle of desire, so delaying my gratification seemed to at least offer a positive alternative to the "I want everything and I want it now" mentality of modern life. Walking the hedonic treadmill didn't seem so bad if at the same time I was walking the PCT. Thru-hiking, after all, is a form of walking meditation. During those many hot, dry miles of lackluster scenery you are confronted with multiple desires which can not be immediately satisfied. You simply have to observe your desires and continue on. It's a simple life wherein we accept our dissatisfaction and discomfort and that in itself seems to sow happiness.
Really, there's no point in turning your back on desire - you need to eat and drink to stay alive. You need sex to propagate the human species. But you don't need it all and you don't need it all right now. You don't need to "gain the whole world" as Doc said. Moderation is fine. Waiting is fine. Acceptance is fine. Returning to the Tao Te Ching: "There is no greater curse than lack of contentment, no greater sin than the desire for possession. Therefore he who is contented with contentment shall always be content." It is a bit clunky, that statement, and sounds so utterly simple in contrast to the near impossibility of its execution. Easier said than done, to be sure, but thru-hiking seemed to make it more attainable.
Western material values are nearly ubiquitous, as Doc observes in Cannery Row, but not entirely. They are absent in Mack and the boys in Monterey. So too, he claims, in the ice cream seller far down in Mexico and the Aleut far up in Alaska. And they may also be absent in the thru-hiker, existing somewhere, geographically speaking, between the Mexican and the Alaskan as he makes his way over the Columbia River from Oregon into Washington.
We set foot upon the steel bridge and passed by its toll booth. There was no pathway for pedestrians and the woman in the booth asked us to simply walk against traffic. Pushed forth by memories of our 2,150 mile journey we crossed over the mighty Columbia River on the Bridge of the Gods and walked triumphantly ahead towards Washington, cars slowing and moving aside to let us pass.
We were crossing the Columbia where once stood an earthen bridge, created long ago by violent landslides. The gods Wy'east and Klickitat had traveled that stone thoroughfare, but now they stood motionless and shielded in ice, keeping eternal vigilance on opposite sides of the river as the volcanoes now known as Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams. In my mind, drunk on the pride of our achievements, I elevated us to grandiose positions, placing Washpot and I among that pantheon of Cascadian gods. "We who walk across the Columbia are those who have walked every mile from southern lands," I pretentiously thought to myself. "We who have walked from Mexico. We who spin the earth beneath us with each step, causing new peaks and ranges to rise up on the horizon and familiar ones to recede off into the distance. We thru-hikers! We gods among men!"
The work has been the means of making me feel that I am living richly, diversely, and, in a few cases and for a few moments, even heroically. All of these things are not me, for I am none of these things. But sometimes in my own mind at least I can create something which is larger and richer than I am.
I crossed the river and set foot in Washington, the state where I fell in love with hiking. It is the state where I gradually found myself taking longer and longer day hikes, until eventually I mustered the courage to embark on my first overnight trip in the shadow of the tallest of all the Cascade volcanoes - Mt. Rainier. The state where I first set foot on the PCT and stared south, wondering what it would feel like to have walked all the way from Mexico, imagining the terrain I would pass through along the way and how beautiful it might be. The state where I would weather out a hail storm in a high alpine basin, grabbing my tarp just before it blew away and then holding it firmly against the ground on both sides, fists clenched and digging into the earth as I waited an hour for the storm to pass. Where I experienced the joy of solitude in true wilderness, far from any road. Where I forded a remote backcountry creek nearly a hundred miles from the ocean, filled with salmon floating nearly motionless in its current like glinting jewels - their crimson backs reflecting the sun like rubies. And though I did not know it at the time, when I crossed that bridge over the Columbia, it was the state where I had already met my future wife on an August afternoon amidst the High Divide of the Olympic Mountains. Washington was my home before the trail and over the course of the summer the PCT had become a new home and now the two were entwined.