Out and Back on the Hoh River Trail

“You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know. ”
Rene Daumal

As an Outward Bound instructor, that quote became very familiar to me and is a popular favorite to be brought out at the end of the climbing section of a course or read at a dinner circle. But while familiar, I don’t think I’d ever put much thought into what it meant. Recently, while standing over the edge of the Blue Glacier in Olympic National Park, that quote flooded my brain and it’s significance to me became clear.

photo of author beside the Blue Glacier

To reach the edge of the Blue Glacier required a 17.5 mile trek through the temperate rain forests along the Hoh River, up into the high country surrounding Mount Olympus, then returning via the same route. Now let’s get one thing straight, I don’t like doing out and back hikes. I mean, who really wants to cover the same ground twice? Sure with a loop hike you end up back in the same place, but at least you’ve “come full circle”, which brings with it some sense, whether it be real or imagined, of completeness. However, I had done some research and had a person I trust tell me that this particular out and back hike would be well worth it.

I thought I’d try to recall the experience sitting here at home in Asheville, but decided the words of the moment, though more stream of consciousness and lacking the rules of grammar, would be best. So below is an excerpt from my journal, written on the forth day of the hike after we had left the high country and were headed back along the river with 11 miles left between us, the car, and the craziness of life out of the woods.

My view while writing

August 23rd,2010 around 7:30 AM
Banks of the Hoh River, Olympic National Park, Washington

Blue/grey water rushes past carrying with it the soil that once composed the high peaks towering in the morning sun, the dirt scoured out by the march of snow and ice, slow crackling it’s way leaving valleys and piles of rubble in it’s wake as it advances and retreats. Below, where I now sit, the giants live, sentinels of the forest, towering overhead, their massive bulk here for many, many human lifespans. This is a magical place. I am grateful it was spared before the ax fell like in so much of the forest surrounding the park, slopes covered in grey jagged stumps, sun baked and lifeless. Animals here seem to have little fear of us having been protected from guns for so long. No “you cannot stay on the summit forever”-but oh how I wanted to, watching the changing light and shadow, clouds hiding, then revealing ever loftier heights. The pain of the pack is temporary, the comforts of home are fleeting. Wilderness is where we can see just how small our place in this world really is, but also how much destruction we can bring in our wake.

So here are my thoughts a few weeks distant from the experience: From the edge of the Blue Glacier, looking up at the cloud shrouded heights of Mount Olympus, I could see the sweep of time and space, could feel how small our place in all of this vast world is, yet, at the same time know that what we do does make a difference. Each one of us, though our actions be tiny in comparison to the infinities around us, each action adds up, each step off the trail begins the formation of a new path, just as each snowflake, a billion times multiplied, created the glacier before me. Each one of us has our individual role to play in the creation of the larger whole.

Our hike on the Hoh River Trail provided a new window to look through. It once again affirmed to me the value of doing new things, and how seeing new places adds to our perspective. Explorations, whether they be a physical journey or one of the mind and spirit, widen and sharpen our vision so that the landscapes real and imagined we have already traversed can become new again. With this new perspective, we can move forward while going back to the familiar in our lives with more wisdom, and hopefully more to offer to those around us and the one world we all share. For me, that is what Rene Daumal was talking about.

Perhaps an out and back hike is not such a bad thing after all.

Hoh River Trail Summer 2010

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