The inexperienced hiker—and trepid reporter—stops before a sign that says “Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness”. (It is not his intention to cover Salmon River Trail #742 on Independence Day. Yet he feels compelled to write anyway.) A pass is required beyond this small station. One must fill out a wilderness use permit, which resembles, eerily, a toe tag for the occupant of a morgue. He must wear it dangling from his backpack or risk a $100 fine. But he is not entering death. Quite the contrary, the forest is electrically charged with life. Except for the small station, made up of a box containing permits, a map of the local trails, a sign that says “Mount Hood National Forest”, and the well-worn dirt path about two feet wide, there is only nature here. Many before have compared the forest to diving beneath a green sea, and that is how it feels, as if you are contained beneath the limbs and leaves and within the mossy dirt inclines of Salmon River Gorge.
Salmon River Trail #742 climbs up a ridge beyond the station. As unromantic as the trail name sounds, secret beauties are everywhere. “There are seven waterfalls underneath the ridge,” an old man tells the inexperienced hiker, “but they’re all hidden.” You can hear the seven falls—Frustration Falls and Final Falls among them—whispering under foot. The loudest sound, though, is silence. The absence of sound, the absence of pressure lifts you far out of the city. It is refreshing, letting the machine mind reboot. There is amnesia of sound. Tires crunching pavement would be unrecognizable were the inexperienced hiker to hear it.
But if he senses he is here, if the air breathes on his sweaty skin and his eyes see a shade of green everything, his mind does not. It is as if his mind is nailed to a pike back in the city, swiveling in the right direction but pinioned and unable to move. The squares of light that filter through the sea of evergreen trees are actually opaque windows; moss is the revealed underbelly of cement structures; brooks filtering down through the rocks are run-off from a homeless man’s urination on the side of a downtown building. Is that a slug or dog shit? The city infects his senses.
A family passes on the ridge—mother, father, son and daughter—wearing American flag visors, bandanas, and t-shirts. Their political swagger is not important to the forest. Curiously, the trepid reporter notices most of the hikers choose to wear green. Even he is wearing a green t-shirt and camouflage pants. It is perhaps a subconscious attempt to tell the forest we are kin, but we must not reveal ourselves to each other.
The ridge is steep and no view is afforded to hikers. Occasionally, there is a break in evergreens and the other half of the gorge wall is visible. But mostly there is the sound of the waterfalls, drifting louder and softer after each wind of trail. The inexperienced hiker turns around, frustrated he will not get a scenic viewpoint, like an interstate stop. He is sweating much more than other hikers and has swallowed his pride and picked up a walking stick. The stick leaves the pleasant aroma of fresh dirt on his hands. He passes old couples, young couples, couples with dogs and children, all of whom move slowly through the forest. They resist their city gaits and refuse to become stuck in society while the fresh evergreens dance above them. And, on the Fourth of July, this is a meditation on at least one definition of freedom: the ability not to become stuck. The ability to move. Freedom is the remedy for glue.
The path flattens out past the station. Salmon River is visible and, even though the running water occasionally snags on jutting rocks and rips into white water, it churns quietly. He passes the old man whom told of the seven hidden waterfalls. He is with a bushy-bearded man in a tye-dye tank top and a precocious child holding a whistle in his mouth. The river is wider here and stretches of beach appear. Camps are made. Some of the young families step out into the cold water, but most bask in the sun.
On the shore of the river the modern world enters again. This is the stream, the metaphor used for information, the stream of information, except among the steel skyscrapers the medium is air, not water. The stream of information on the internet, sometimes flowing unimpeded, calmly, perhaps senselessly, sometimes hazardous, more hazardous than is realized. A boy across the river throws a rock into the water and the nightmare reverie is broken. The city leaves. On the trail, there is a report that might be the forest’s first firecracker of the day, but it actually a woman’s sneeze. “Sorry,” she says, “I inherited my sneeze from my father.” The trepid reporter is left with a peculiar question: are sneezes passed down through the genes?
The slab-gray of downtown Portland does not stimulate the eye the way the forest does. But the buildings, bridges and streets are geometric, uniform, inviting. It is 10 o’clock at Riverfront Park, crowds are filling in, the Morrison Bridge is closed, and there is still too much daylight for the fireworks show. The inexperienced-hiker-turned-drowsy-reveler is feeling something like sea legs: hiker’s legs. Time is ticking on but not noticeably moving forward for the impatient masses.
Children sleep in their mother’s laps. Someone is singing the Star-Spangled Banner in Spanish. Angry Birds blanket. Blue jeans. French Baguettes for sale. An argument over the cost of firework shows for cities. Unattended fountain fireworks. Women dressed fancifully, and what they look like at home, what they really look like. Wet turf grass. The crowds bombard the senses. There is no stop, no silence, no patience. The drowsy reveler does not necessarily wish to be in the forest again, but he cannot be here.
Kelly’s Olympian has emptied out for the moment while drinkers try to catch a glimpse of the fireworks show, pitiful though it usually is. By coincidence, the drowsy reveler’s upstairs neighbors are playing at Kelly’s tonight and so he stumbles into the show. He tries to grab another drink at the bar, but the fireworks show is over now and Kelly’s is packed like a matchbox. In the cool air outside, there chants of “U.S.A! U.S.A!”, ironic but taking on a sadder and more bitter tone than years past. The drowsy reveler finds that the louder the bar, the gaudier their neon signs, the more he thinks about freedom. You are not stuck in any bar. There is always a crowd, and they are always on the move.