Recently, as I was telling the story of this trip, and this moment when, after a hard day of hill climbing in the rain and a miserable night of freezing cold sleep, we finally saw Klickitat punched out against a clear blue sky – Someone responded – “don’t you mean Mt. Adams?”
Since I’ve committed to learning the precolonial names of the outdoor spaces I explore, some understandings have begun to emerge about how we as human beings interact with the natural world. Indeed, Klickitat itself was also named Pahto by the tribes of the region. Later named for a U.S. president who was born and died in Massachusetts. Only the mountain knows what other names it’s been called. ‘Intelligent’ (I’m skeptical of anthropocentric definitions of virtue) hominids may have lived in the area for 15,000 years. What did they call the mountain in 13,000 BC, if anything at all?
The indigenous nomenclature of the region was particularly interesting on this trip, as we strapped up and loaded our bikes for two days in Sahalee Tyee or “Indian Heaven” – a wilderness area south of Tahoma (Mt. Rainier) and north of Wy’East (Mt. Hood). In our experience, Indian Heaven is aptly named. The rugged topography nestles endless secret washes, creeks, and ponds – Punctuated with meadows ideal to elk and wildflowers, and enveloped in coniferous forest. Mushrooms erupt from the forest floor with each break in the rain. These environs are so well suited to humans, you may be tempted to infer intelligent design. We began pedaling in the sun. Heaven rose up around us, and we pushed into Sahalee Tyee.
Nearly every time I get out into nature, my heart breaks for the precolonial world of North America. The northwest in particular, with its moderate climate and diverse landscape, were nothing less than a paradise before our bloodthirsty ancestors. Before our chattering, coughing machines. Before the DNR carved up the foothills, dammed the rivers, and clearcut the ancient giants to the brink of extinction (referring to the myriad lives and communities of wild lands as ‘resources’ boils my blood. To hell with the department).
This year, given… everything… Swift Industries Campout landed on the weekend of my pal Mike’s birthday. Graham Hodge of Six Moon Design suggested that we take a route planned by Molly Sugar of RideWithGPS called ‘The Fire and Ice Loop’. Graham reversed the route, and what we got were Ice and Fire. It was Graham, Mike, myself, my best friend Brad, and on her first bikepacking trip ever – our friend Jenn. Day one tested our resolve with twenty-ish miles of gradual incline, capped off with a sudden onslaught of wind and rain just as we found camp.
Outdoor recreation is hilarious. We so often meet challenges that overwhelm our capacity for enjoyment that we created a new ‘type’; of fun to explain it.
In ‘Nature’, Emerson writes –
“But this beauty of Nature which is seen and felt as beauty is the least part. The shows of the day, the dewy morning, the rainbow, mountains, orchards in blossom, stars, moonlight, shadows in still water, and the like, if too eagerly hunted, become shows merely, and mock us with their unreality. Go out of the house to see the moon, and ‘t is mere tinsel; it will not please as when its light shines upon your necessary journey.”
That is to say – We essentially experienced the opposite. An unnecessary journey. No moonlight. What in the fuck were we doing on the trail in such miserable conditions? Surely 400 years ago the indigenous people of Sahalee Tyee would have sought shelter and rest, resuming their chores and travels at daybreak under clearer skies. Well, we’d come to ride bikes and we were going to ride the bikes. Unnecessary as it was, we were on the journey.
One thing I love about hauling myself and a bunch of shit to the middle of nowhere is the finality of it. As I banged up my shaking hands tying guy lines in the skinny pines, rushing to make camp before full dark; I kept saying to myself – “You’re here. You did this. There’s no way out of this. Put up the hammock. You’ll get warm later”. I didn’t. I ate a lukewarm, half-cooked bag of beans sitting on the ground, and crawled into my hammock, soggy and pissed. What could I do otherwise? With nobody else around, how could we get out of here if we wanted to? The only other option was laying down on the ground to die. I considered this ‘Plan B’ as I lay shivering in my hammock.
When was the last time you howled? I recommend howling for almost any reason, but nothing amplifies joy quite like bellowing into the sky whatever animal noise makes its way out of your body. I poked my head out of my hammock, having finally decided to give up on my six hours of refrigerated half-sleep. I saw sunshine and I howled. I don’t recall a better coffee in recent memory than the one we had, lizarding in the sun by the spring-fed pond which the night before had tormented us with the frigid, humid breeze that swept across its surface.
Slowly, we broke camp. Honestly, I think I was stalling because looking at my bike was giving me flashbacks. We’d strewn our tarps and clothes among a little stand of bushes in the sun, and we just hung out for a while bullshitting and drying out. I don’t remember breakfast. I’m learning that often, on the bike – The stuff my pal Mike calls “Boil n’ Bag” is not sufficiently more satisfying than a bar to justify the effort and the mess. At home, I’ll spend an hour and a half cooking and eating a big beautiful breakfast on a Tuesday morning. On the trail, I guess it’s just a calories game.
Once we’d mounted up, the joy rushed back to meet us. Just out of camp, we were bombing on dusty gravel. That would basically be our whole day. I’d end up howling quite a bit. Almost immediately, the previous day felt worthwhile. I could laugh at how pathetic I’d felt the previous night. The shitty sleep melted away and once again my bike felt like a part of my body instead of a medieval torture machine.
Then, we saw Klickitat. What a mountain. One of the things I love about it is the slightly threatening tone of its Wikipedia page. “Potentially active stratovolcano”. “…It is not considered extinct”. Pahto – We’re waiting. We believe in you. This region of the Cascade Range comprises miles of ragged peaks, but none so dramatic as these brothers, Tahoma and Klickitat. Their family with Koma Kulshan (Mt. Baker), Wy’East, and Seekseekqua (Mt. Jefferson) form a constellation across the Northwest. Most days you can only see one or two of them at a time, but they share the same incomprehensibly powerful wave of tectonic energy.
It’s not my place to tell the legends of the Klickitat people, but their stories of these magnificent mountains hint at wonder and reverence sorely missing from contemporary American culture. Google it. I remembered that I had started carrying binoculars, and the extra weight paid off as we absorbed the first sweeping view of the trip so far.
As I’d mentioned, we reversed Molly’s “Fire and Ice Loop” and Saturday had delivered on the ice. Sunday was the fire. We were just whooping, howling, and jumping gaps all the way down the mountain. Jenn’s dry bag kept slouching into her front wheel, but the day was so full of joy I didn’t mind just laying on the ground on the side of the trail while she re-rigged. The sun climbed in the sky, and steam rose up from the shadowy corners around us. We blew past beat up 4WD rigs full of hippies hunting huckleberries. This brings me to an important part of Indian Heaven’s history – The Handshake Agreement.
In 1932, amid the profound subjugation and attempted erasure of indigenous culture and customs, a forestry supervisor named J.R. Bruckart made a deal with peoples we now call the Yakama. All the berries on the northeastern side of the road are “Reserved for Indians”. While necessary, and by the measures of its time even progressive in a twisted way – Isn’t this odd? It was the Great Depression. Poor white people – direct relatives of the first wave of colonizers – Descended on the land in such great numbers that they began decimating the huckleberries – a staple of indigenous diets. The tribes who’d communed with this land for millennia were then subjected to the scarcity and resource consumption that is a hallmark of settler colonial capitalism. But don’t worry – We made a treaty about it! The idea that the rightful ancestral stewards of this land should be subject to any colonizer’s law would be laughable were it not so tragic.
We didn’t stop for berries on either side of the road, though we did keep our heads on a swivel for Chantrelles. This might have been how we wound up in the little meadow off Twin Buttes Road. When a water table rises repeatedly in an area, and when the soil composition is just right – You get a meadow. The best ones feel like God’s footprint just stomped right into a forest wilderness. I howled again. Open space means sunlight. Sunlight, as it turns out – Means sunburns. It was worth it. Some anthropologists suggest hunter-gatherer societies worked about 20 hours a week – Leaving considerably more hours for doing nothing in a meadow. I love my bike. I love riding my bike. I couldn’t get off it fast enough. I leaned it on a log, took off my shoes and socks, and indulged in every animal’s birthright – Barefoot communion between my skin and the Earth. I do this every chance I get, and I recommend you do too.
I imagined staying here for days. The Klickitat, Wishram, Wasco, Cascades, Yakama, and Umatilla people would gather here between what we call August and September to harvest the abundant huckleberries, trade goods, and celebrate the bounty of Sahalee Tyee. For many of these tribes, the journey here was days long, so Sahalee Tyee would host multicultural camps of neighboring tribes, united by their common tether to nature’s providence. Can anyone explain to me why this is not the way of all people?
Some part of my heart stays in each place that I love. I believe the heart also grows as it imprints on things like this, so in this way, it never diminishes as long as it stays open. Without being too dramatic – We may be approaching a dystopian future fueled by extractive, exploitive capitalist colonial omnicide. It’s helpful, even mildly comforting to note that in relatively recent history – This land had never heard our names or the names of our presidents. Rain clouds will move across Sahalee Tyee. Pahto may even someday erupt. We rounded the corner to the parking lot. Back to our cars. To highways. Back to the land of things with names.