The morning could not have been better. The cloudless sky is drenched that certain cobalt blue I associate with Northern California. I start out on the wide gravel path overlooking the creek, wearing a light blue jacket over my short-sleeved, pale gray tee-shirt. Before long, I’ll ditch the jacket and stuff it into my gay turquoise daypack, where my fancy REI water bottle, that keeps liquids hot or cold for hours, sits filled and cool, in the side mesh pocket.
As lovely as the day happens to be, there’s a problem. It’s technically still winter here. Rain should be falling and the morning cool. But we haven’t had a drop of rain for more than a month. The bigger problem is that we have suffered two devastating fires within the past three years, a result of the previous long drought, made worse by climate change.
Part of me thinks I shouldn’t be happy about this spring-like weather. Yet the hills are still green from the rain that, thankfully, fell earlier in the season. The as-yet-to-bloom old oaks wear wispy, gray-white scarves of moss, draped over their branches, and the sun glinting off rocks in the creek causes my heart to soar and mood to lift, in a way it almost never does indoors.
I am a worrier. Or to be more precise, I worry much of the time. I worry the recipe I’ve made countless times before won’t turn out. I worry when I’m behind the wheel of a car, since I learned to drive late in life. Before social encounters, I obsess, because I’m an introvert. I’m more than a little hypochondriac, so I worry about spots that suddenly appear on my skin or an unfamiliar pain in my side.
My worrying has a name and even an official diagnosis – Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Over time, and after many years of therapy, I’ve come to recognize that the anxiety helps power a chronic low-level depression I’ve suffered from most of my life.
I have never taken medication for either condition, and I’m not completely sure why. A first, easy answer is that as the daughter of two alcoholics, I’ve felt leery of relying on any substance to make me happy. More important, through a combination of therapy, mindfulness meditation, and exercise, I have learned to manage my moods, and ease their effects. Living with my demons, I learn a lot. The trigger to what haunts me is a deep and serious sensitivity. On the opposite end of fear and sadness, I can experience intense joy, simply from a song or the startling purple petals on a flower.
I do have one tried-and-true drug I gladly turn to, which is more effective than anything a doctor might prescribe. That drug is here, outside. Just as I learned this morning, after tying the long laces on my olive-green hiking boots, grabbing my pack and walking stick, locking the car and making my way across the parking lot to the gravel path, the drumbeat of worry, disappointment, discouragement and emotional pain goes silent, as I bask in the warm sun. The breeze plays with my hair, and I smile, captivated by a diamond of light winking off the creek.
The path is wide to begin, running high above a narrow, rock-strewn stream that curves east and then west, as it runs down from the hills. Another path is cut into the grass, above the opposite bank. Though everything is open, the hills in the distance are smothered in dark green trees.
I have come here at the end of a year in which my husband of several decades was diagnosed with cancer. At the time the cancer was discovered, it had metastasized to the bones. A growth close to Richard’s neck was biopsied, analyzed and determined to be malignant, but the pathologist was unable to pinpoint the organ in which the cells started. It turned out to be a rare form of the malignancy, simply called Cancer of Unknown Primary, or CUP for short. In recent time, cancer treatments have improved because medications can be targeted to specific types of disease. Unfortunately, this is not the case for CUP.
Luckily for us, Richard’s cancer has responded well to a combination of chemotherapy drugs. Unfortunately for Richard, he has had to endure one dose after the other of this poison, for twelve long months. And he’s not done.
Accustomed to making plans, especially for travelling to beautiful places, I have been forced to live moment to moment. Cancer, especially with regularly scheduled chemotherapy, doesn’t lend itself to much else. As difficult as this has been, it has also brought gratefulness, strength and joy.
Cancer weeds out life’s unnecessary baggage. I’ve also learned this truth, struggling with anxiety and depression. When pain eases for a time, the simplest thing, such as sunlight breaking through a cloud, can make me tremble with joy.
I have long been accustomed to turning to nature, in hopes of cheering myself up. In my early twenties when I lived in Washington, D.C., I left the city with friends most summer weekends, to hike the trails in Shenandoah National Park. We carried far too much weight, in part because the equipment in those days, including my shiny royal blue backpack, weighed a ton. The other reason was that we hauled up beer and wine, to accompany our freeze-dried dinners.
Years later, I can still picture one of our campsites, set along a rushing stream. I also remember that I could only afford a cheap pair of hiking boots, which gave me blisters. I endured the pain because the joy of those weekends, sitting out at night under the stars and waking up in the silence, surrounded by towering trees, lifted my frequently low spirits to a place otherwise impossible to reach. Those long-ago backpacking weekends planted a hunger in me for a spiritual communing with nature, for which I’ve never tired.
Stepping out of the car this morning and onto the trail, I take in the sky, trees, a soft breeze, birdsong, and reflections in the creek’s emerald water. What surrounds me quiets the anxiety about my husband’s cancer and a second worry that we haven’t gotten enough rain and might be dropping into another drought, guaranteeing a devastating fire season. More than erasing fears and lifting the low-level depression, something hard to put into words occurs, moments after I move one booted foot forward, followed by the other. Gazing at the cloudless sky, I know everything will be all right. This doesn’t mean I’ve gotten a concrete assurance about what will happen. The natural world is telling me that life will go on, no matter how much I fret or plan, bargain or pray. What will be will be, a voice inside says. At the moment, that’s more than enough.
The wide gravel trail runs alongside the creek for about a mile. Hills rise above the opposite shore, dotted with imposing old oaks, on which bright new leaves haven’t yet emerged. The palest gray-green moss hangs from the otherwise naked branches, eerily beautiful, the way a long-haired crone might appear.
At the end of the wide trail, a reddish-brown wooden bridge stretches over the stream. From a distance, it’s a picturesque sight, with the creek in the foreground, bridge midway, and the hill filling in the background. I can’t help but pull out my phone and snap a photo.
Here and there along the edge of the trail, nearly fluorescent orange California poppies poke out of the dirt. I think of this happy bloom as a summer flower, and wonder at its early arrival, before spring has officially begun. Another sign of climate change, I fear. There are scattered, small lavender asters, as well, and I can’t help but be glad that even without a drop of rain in the previous month, wildflowers decided to show up.
Hardly anyone is out on the trail this morning, since it’s a weekday, and most people are at work. I’m lucky not to be, after years of being stuck in a bland, depressing office. I don’t need to check my watch every half-hour, as I did then, wanting the time to pass quickly. On the contrary, I prefer the minutes to drag, making it possible for me to hike a good distance before dark.
I hiked in this Northern California state park the first time when living nearby was just a dream. Most of the country was still mired in the Great Recession, and I dared hope housing prices had dropped enough, so that Richard and I might be able to return and live in California. We had spent the previous twelve years in beautiful, but too often wet and dreary, Oregon. I’d been searching the Internet, to find out if we could afford a small house, here in California Wine Country. After stumbling across a handful of possibilities, I concluded that, yes, we might.
In early October, we made the ten-hour drive from Portland to Sonoma County’s largest small city, Santa Rosa. With addresses and directions in hand, we meandered around town, scoping out neighborhoods and exteriors of houses I’d found. By the end of the day, I thought this might work, after all.
We had moved to Oregon from overpriced San Francisco, in order to buy a house. That goal was achieved, and for twelve years we’d been living in, and renovating, a charming Queen Anne Victorian cottage. At the same time, I ached to return to my favorite beaches and trails, overlooks and views, in the San Francisco Bay Area, including in Sonoma County. The day we hiked here at Annadel State Park, I was happy, thinking we might be able to return for good.
Even with that hopeful outlook, I couldn’t have imagined what would happen four months later. On a cold, rainy February night, Richard and I offered to buy a midcentury ranch house we hadn’t yet seen. We shouted into the off-white phone, balanced in the center of our bed, that we’d pay the full asking price, then listened to what our realtor in Santa Rosa had to say.
Two weeks later, we flew to Oakland, rented a car, and drove fifty miles north, to tour the house, as several inspectors reported a few minor problems but nothing seriously wrong. Even once we’d signed the papers, making the house ours, I didn’t believe we would ever live in it. But a year and a half on, we watched the movers pull away from the curb, in front of our empty Victorian cottage. As soon as they were gone, we got in the car and began the first leg of the long drive to our new home.
During the year and a half between buying the house and coming to live here, we visited every few months. Days before our initial stay, I ordered a bedroom set, which was delivered once we arrived. Several folding chairs and TV trays rounded out the rest of our make-do furniture. Those visits felt like some combination of camping and paring down, living a simpler life.
I’ve spent more than seven years now, living less than a ten-minute drive away from this park. I have hiked the Canyon Trail more times than I can recall. When I’m with Richard, we stop at a place where it’s necessary to ford the creek during the rainy season, if we’ve been lucky enough to get rain. Richard and I will perch ourselves on two large rocks, share an energy bar, and watch the water run gaily down the hill, before retracing our steps back to the parking lot.
If I’m by myself, like today, I’ll keep going, to where the trail gets steeper. It’s not a long climb, but more strenuous than what comes before, and rocky. I won’t quit until I reach Lake Ilsanjo at the top.
After I cross the creek on a bridge paved with oily-smelling, old wooden railroad ties, the trail begins to climb. It’s still open here, which makes it warm once summer arrives. This morning, the temperature is just right, neither hot nor cold. The way I like it.
A bit further up, there’s more water in the creek, which is now on my right, but it’s not running as high as last year, when we had a normal season’s rain. This time of year, the path ought to be wet and muddy, but it’s not.
This is the only state park in which I’ve ever hiked alone. For many years, I had no way of reaching hiking spots by myself, because I didn’t know how to drive. I still stay pretty close to home when I’m behind the wheel, which is another reason I hike alone only in this close-in park.
I’m especially cautious when I hike by myself. Nothing bad has ever happened, but I’ve heard too many stories of people going missing on trails, most ending happily with rescues and astonishing tales of survival, but a few never being found – or discovered when it’s too late.
I walk more carefully when the trail narrows and enters the woods. It’s not just the darkness that frightens me. The path climbs high above the stream here. If I stumble – and the trail is usually slippery this time of year – my body will careen a long way down.
My anxiety soon vanishes, though, because I’m forced to pay attention to where I’m stepping. Here, the trail is dotted with rocks. All my thoughts drop down to my feet, as I determine the safest place to set one boot down and then the other, using my pointed walking stick for balance, like a third leg.
I go on like this, at times forced to make way for a mountain biker descending as fast as I am heading up slowly. The climb and my need to concentrate drive every other worry out of my mind.
In the days when I still saw my therapist once a week, sitting across from her in a soft-as-marshmallow, pale gray leather chair, I needed time outdoors even more. Every session, I dredged up long-buried pain, reopening wounds that seemed like they might never heal. Many days, my normally sensitive soul seemed tuned up way too high. Walks in beautiful places gave me hope.
I was living in San Francisco then and had wondrous Golden Gate Park to explore. I couldn’t help but be aware that homeless men camped off the sides of narrow trails, tucked inside the dense cypress groves. Sometimes, I chose to walk there anyway. But I mostly followed the paved sidewalk that bordered John F. Kennedy Drive, starting where the wide, busy Panhandle, lined with tall Victorian apartment buildings, stopped.
Some days, I practiced a walking meditation I’d learned from the slim volume, Peace is Every Step, by Zen Buddhist master, Thich Nhat Hanh. Silently, I would run the short, two-line mantra through my mind, as I passed the white Victorian confection, known as the Hall of Flowers, with its myriad, small-paned windows and artful arrangements of blooms and complementary hues, spilling down out front. From this simple exercise, I learned that meditating while walking enabled me to really see the shapes and colors around me, which I often missed, because my thoughts were tangled up in fears or hurts I’d been wrestling with for hours.
The last part of the Canyon Trail leading up to Lake Ilsanjo is the steepest. It’s also rocky, forcing me to step even more carefully and press my mind firmly to what I’m doing, moment to moment to moment. In many ways, this section demands what my life does now, taking care of someone I love, as he endures often punishing cancer treatment. Long fearful of illness and death, preferring to look away from the most difficult aspects of life, I am learning, as I did in therapy, that facing pain is what allows me to experience joy.
Those grueling uphill hikes in Shenandoah National Park taught me a crucial lesson as well. Pleasure often comes after struggle. As a writer, I’ve learned this teaching well. Accustomed to wrestling with passages that even after countless revisions lack the emotional immediacy I seek, I’ve come to a grudging acceptance that trying to have it easy yields little reward.
By the time the trail flattens out and I get my first glimpse of Lake Ilsanjo, I’m damp with sweat, even though I stopped a way back to ditch the jacket and stuff it in my pack. I pause to catch my breath and silently congratulate myself for not throwing in the towel, turning around partway, and heading back down.
A moment later, I start walking again, heading for the wooden picnic table, set just above the lakeshore. I recall how years ago, when I was in my early thirties and living in Seattle, I used to talk friends into going hiking with me, on super-steep trails. In those days, I was always out front, goading my pal with promises that the view from the top would be worth the hard work to get there. Usually, once we reached the viewpoint, my friend would agree that yes, she was glad she had come.
On the way down, we would banter back and forth about what we planned to order at Zeke’s Drive-In, on the way home. Famous for Mrs. Zeke’s homemade pies and fresh-fruit shakes, the little eatery in tiny Gold Bar, Washington, with its two walk-up windows and small groups of tables set inside and out, was on Route 2, east of Lake Wenatchee and the Stevens Pass ski area. Stopping at Zeke’s was a ritual, not just for my crowd, but for countless other Washingtonians, headed to and from the Cascades.
There’s no fruit pie or milkshake awaiting me today, and this hike is nothing like the long, steep treks I took in my twenties and thirties, including once hiking down the Grand Canyon on the Bright Angel Trail and struggling back up. Instead, I take a moment to gaze at the manmade lake, a reservoir, which is nothing like the awe-inspiring lakes and rivers found in the California Sierras, at Washington’s Mt. Rainier, or in the Oregon Cascades. On this day, though, wind-tossed waves are shimmering in the sun, and the reeds lining the shore have been transformed into chartreuse swords of light.
The walk down is easy, though I still need to pay close attention to the steep, rocky parts. I’m grateful for the day, the mild weather, and of course, this park. In the early years when Richard and I were dating, I always wanted the days to last longer, especially if we’d headed out of San Francisco, to some favorite beach or park. If the frequent fog held off that day and we were on the coast, I usually convinced Richard to stay for the sunset. As the last of the glowing orb disappeared beneath the horizon, he and I would break into applause.
Today, I reach the parking lot long before dusk. I no longer need to squeeze every single moment out of a lovely day. More of
such times will come, I know, interspersed with the hard days. But because of the darkness, the light will shine brighter,
even while it may not last as long as I would like.
Patty Somlo’s books, Hairway to Heaven Stories (Cherry Castle Publishing), The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing), have been finalists in the International Book, Best Book, National Indie Excellence, American Fiction and Reader Views Literary Awards.