I sit at The Haven, a popular breakfast place in Port Angeles, Washington, at the same exact table where I sat so many years ago now. Then I was trying to find the courage to set out on my grand solo backpacking adventure in the Elwah river valley. I didn't know what was in store for me. I didn't know that within hours of being on the trail alone, I would encounter both a bear and a very strange man, but I did know that I was stepping past my comfort zone. I was lingering over my breakfast, planning other errands I wanted to accomplish before I hit the trail; all excuses, nervous energy directed at shopping. I was really just dragging my feet because I was terrified of what was to come.
Today I am the only diner in the restaurant. I sit quietly with my thoughts. My challenge these twenty years later is driving on the highways, not hiking on the trails. I've needed to know if I can still manage a trip like this and so far, the new is good. Tomorrow I head home, facing my final and perhaps biggest challenge, navigating several highways, some in early morning darkness and later during rush hour, to finally deliver my car back to the rental company and catch my plane.
I can't leave without visiting the Elwah River. I had wanted to see the changes where the damn was removed and was disappointed to find that the entire road was closed for roadwork. I'm hoping I can find a little spot before the construction barricades where I can at least, sit by the river, listen to the water rush by and soak in its energy once again.
I'm pleased to see that the road is open for a couple of miles and I am thrilled to find a quiet spot with a good view of the river. As soon as I pull up, I'm surprised to see a large salmon making its way upstream. Then another! The water is crystal clear. A brown duck with hints of orange underneath its belly, makes big splashes as it skids along the water, taking flight. Returning my eyes to the river I notice a dead salmon just at the waters edge on the far shore. It is large, maybe two feet long. It looks as if it has been out of the water for some time. Being easy food for forest creatures, some small animal has already feasted on it.
The river holds this scene that includes the salmon's demise with absolute peace. The sound of the river rushing to the sea is as soothing as I remembered and holds a deep promise of return. Its powerful flow is a picture of inevitability. Lines from David Whyte's poem Where Many Rivers Meet, come to mind.
All the water below me came from above.
All the clouds living in the mountains
gave it to the rivers
who gave it to the sea, which was their dying.
My eyes shift back and forth between the dead salmon and the live ones still moving upstream. A large one appears in shallow water. It moves slowly and then in quick bursts of energy as it makes its way against the current.
I, now nearing seventy, can barely make a dent in this wild terrain. My foot, my knee, my ankle, my energy, keep me off of all but the easiest trails and then I need to watch my footing. On this trip, I sit by the edges. I write. I reflect. I miss that younger woman who was so full of heart, so needing to prove what she could do. She saw this landscape as a challenge, a way to find her strength.
For some time now, I have wondered what of her remains inside me. I came here so that I might remember her. As I sit here watching the salmon I sense that a transformation has taken place. This wild place that I once pitted myself against, measured myself by, has moved more deeply inside me. It is not so much out there but rather, in here. Then, I was the conqueror, now I feel more like the conquered. Back then, I was seeking strength, physical strength that I hoped might translate into the emotional strength I needed in my life at the time. Sitting here today, I think I’ve found what my younger self was seeking though in the end, it didn’t turn out to be what she thought she was looking for.
I’ve carried these landscapes and the experiences I had here inside me for all these years. They have become part of who I am. As I sit here today I sense that the domestication of my earlier life has receded. I’m more in touch with the wildness inside me, much more accepting that life means constant change. It is easier for me to accept new life when it presents itself, but more importantly I’m more comfortable with life passing away. Perhaps, it’s not that I have been conquered by this wildness, but rather that I have found a way to surrender to it. Accepting my place in the great cycle of life leaves me feeling my belonging in a way that I couldn’t possibly understand when I was younger.
These twenty years have brought changes to my mind and my body. Yet, I am still swimming like these salmon, trying to find home. James Baldwin wrote, “Perhaps home in not a place but simply an irrevocable condition. ” I tend to think that both of these things are true. The salmon find their way to the place where they were born. For me now, home is the deepest part of myself, the place from which my creativity springs. For the salmon, once home, they will deposit their eggs in the nest they prepare in the gravel of the riverbed. I’m still hoping that the part of me that remains fertile can deposit my metaphorical eggs in the rich soil of my creative essence. At almost seventy, I still have a great hope that new life will spring from my efforts. And when life inside me is spent, I hope I’ll be able to surrender myself to the shore.
I see another large fish appear on the far bank. It is white on top, worn down by its life in the sea, its flesh already starting to decay. It is moving very slowly in the shallow water, struggling every inch of the way. I think of my nearly one hundred year old mother, inching herself through her days, doing just what must be done. She is as determined as this fish. Tears come as I watch its struggle.
A white flash catches my eye as another fish in partial decay appears in the deeper water. Fighting against the current, it sidles off into the shallower water as it comes to a riffle. There it begins to move upstream again, following the struggling salmon I was watching earlier. I can’t help but see my own life there in the river, my mother ahead of me nearing one hundred years old and me coming along behind at seventy, the generations moving upstream. I can’t help but think, I’m like these salmon. I’m here now in shallow water. Swimming where I can in this beautiful world. I’m here. I’m swimming. I know I’m headed home.
This blog is dedicated to the healing power of nature and the arts. It encourages a different way of looking at the purpose of the arts in our lives. While we can all appreciate well known artists, musicians and writers, it is good to remember that expressing ourselves through the arts belongs to all of us. It is part of being human. The arts and time in nature take us out of our small selves into something so much bigger. We need this larger perspective to guide our daily lives. I have a Masters Degree in Psychology, am a Registered Expressive Arts Therapist and am owner and founder of For The Joy Of It! Creative Retreat in Mendocino CA.