Peter Shelton

Obvious on the Pacific Crest Trail

Posted in Life in Central Oregon, Personal History by pshelton on July 26, 2015

The other day I was hiking a piece of the Pacific Crest Trail west of Bend. Not a through hike ala Cheryl Strayed in “Wild.” Just a quick out-and-back to Matthieu Lakes. On the way out I stopped to greet a couple coming back. They were in tank tops and urban sneakers. He had a camera on a neck strap banging his collarbone. Neither one carried so much as a water bottle.

Sometimes my sense of humor goes unappreciated. “How many nights were you guys out?” I asked, channeling Basil Fawlty (aka John Cleese), self-professed master of “the bleeding obvious.”

Nothing. Blank stares. Finally the woman jumped in, as if to save me further embarrassment. “No. None. I don’t even have a backpack!”

I don’t remember what, if anything, broke the spell. A kinder person than I would have said, “Just kidding!” and segued straight to the pleasantries. We did get there, but I was loathe to let go of the bleeding obvious, goaded perhaps by the sight just a few minutes before of an Outward Bound troop, top-heavy under their big rigs, pounding down the trail.

At North Matthieu Lake it was as if the trail traffic didn’t exist. In the quiet, electric-blue damselflies caromed above the mirror-smooth water. Farther and farther out they ventured until a gust of wind ruffled the surface and they scurried back to shore, as if the half-inch-high waves might drag them under.

A bird I didn’t recognize chittered somewhere. The tinkling voice was clear yet faint, either tiny or far away. Tiny. There it was in a young fir, right above my head, a gray and white, thumb-sized birdlet, so micro he (or she) could fly between the needles branch to branch.

Across the water a black, lava rock cliff defined the west shore. Basaltic a’a lava. I read about it on the interpretive signs at McKenzie Pass. Pronounced ah-ah, it is a Hawaiian word adopted by volcanologists around the world who study basalts. Fast moving and quick cooling, it shatters into “clinkery” pieces.

I was hiking on lava less than 3,000 years old. Poured out of a vent between the pass and North Sister. It blew my mind. Humans were around then. They might have watched it happen. And, in the relatively short time since, lakes have appeared, forests sprung up.

These mountains are so young. So much younger even than the Colorado San Juans, where we used to live. They are considered young mountains compared to other Rockies sub-ranges, also volcanic, but their age (in their current incarnation) is measured in millions of years, not thousands. I have read that South Sister, aka Hope, at 10,358 feet the highest of the three sisters, is but a hundred thousand years old. And that scientists are monitoring a “bulge” on her flank.

All of this would have given Ellen’s mother fits. Alexandria worried about us, and her grandbabies, everywhere we have lived. When we were in California, she worried about earthquakes. At home in North Carolina she’d hear on the news about some minor quake and call us: “Are you all right?!” During the Colorado years, it was snow and avalanches. She watched in horror as a Monday Night Football game at Mile High Stadium dissolved in a blizzard. “Dears, are you all right? Are you buried in snow?” “No, Zan. We’re fine. We’re 300 miles from Denver, on the other side of the continental divide.” Were she still alive, I’m certain Zan wouldn’t be able to keep from invoking Mount St. Helens, and ringing us up every time she saw mention of the Cascadia subduction zone.

I was thinking these things when my gaze wandered down, between my feet, to the black sand at the water’s edge. There, curled up like a baby snake, was a silver necklace. Delicate. With a fine chain and a faceted green stone set in a Celtic-like design.

It surely had been precious to someone. The clasp was fastened, so it hadn’t just fallen off. It wouldn’t likely have fallen out of a pocket. Had she gone swimming and carefully taken it off only to forget it later?

The mind spun off more cinematic possibilities. Maybe there’d been a fight with her boyfriend and she’d flung it at him. He hadn’t ripped it off; there was the closed clasp. Maybe it was a ceremonial offering, following some unfathomable sadness. What if amorousness were afoot? No, not here; the rocky ground was way too uninviting.

There was no obvious answer, the mystery as stubborn as the necklace’s material reality. I slipped it into a pocket of my Camelbak and as I did so I noticed something else out of place: an amorphous blob, like a piece of packing foam, sunk just out of reach on the lake bottom. I fetched a stick and dragged it to shore thinking grim thoughts about consumerism. But it wasn’t a waterlogged bit of foam. It was a glob of chewing gum, gone gray with age or algae. Maybe the same person who’d lost the necklace had also spit her gum into the lake. I had stumbled on, and claimed for myself, her intimate jewelry. Was it then only fitting that I retrieve her disgusting chew? Sure. Why not? The stories were mine now. No one else would claim them.

The gum was still soft inside, an unnatural slime green. I squished it between two pieces of bark so it wouldn’t ooze, placed it in the pocket with the necklace, and headed off back down the trail.

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