I confess: I am a biased hiker. The high alpine country above timberline is where I prefer to hike. The sweeping vista of snow-capped peaks and the dazzling array of alpine flowers strike the sweet spot in my backpacking experience. I was exposed to this as a young child, making the annual family trek from sea level to ski level on the seventeen mile road from Port Angeles to Hurricane Ridge. The Olympic Mountains remain spectacular in my humble opinion.
Still to reach timberline, one often needs to hike through timber. This was the case in August when I hike my third section of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in southern Washington. The trail is aptly named in that it seeks to follow the crest line of the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and Washington. Often the crest is above tree line, but not always.
For this portion of the PCT I decided to skip the first forty miles as it climbs through the thick forest of the Columbia River Gorge (the border of Washington and Oregon). I started just south of the Indian Heaven Wilderness where a forest service road crossed the trail. After my brother Robert snapped my picture, I plunged into the forest.
I soon discovered that the wilderness area named Indian Heaven is not my personal vision of heaven. Though dotted with dozens of small lakes, the trail was all below timberline. Occasionally the trail climbed a small ridge where one could glimpse some of the distant peaks. But mostly, for the first two and half days and 35 miles, I walked through a multi-green tunnel.
As I hiked through the forest, I explored my mental bias. I recognized that forest hiking is part of long distant hiking. Just as in life, one cannot always choose the surroundings one may prefer. I also discovered that forest walking is a great place to practice both intercessory prayer and mindfulness. As I walked I prayed for my family, friends and for my congregation. I used a simple prayer of compassion. For example, my prayer for Resurrection Lutheran Church was
May Resurrection be filled with loving kindness.
May Resurrection be filled with peace.
May Resurrection be strong and vibrant
May Resurrection live as children of God.
I would repeat the prayer several dozen times, as I breathed in and out. A peace and purpose came with the prayer.
I also practiced mindfulness, dwelling in the present moment, experiencing each footfall and each touch of my trekking poles. I try not to race ahead mentally to when I would reach the high country. Rather let this moment in the forest be my experience.
It was not easy. My mind still likes to jump around, bouncing from one habitual thought to the next. Yet the more I practice, the more I see the reward of simply being in the moment, even when surrounded by a green tunnel. And truly God is in the forest valley as much as the high country.
I was reminded of Psalm 1 as I hiked:
Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.
And if one keeps one’s eyes and mind alert, strange sights can be encountered. One can imagine all kinds of story on how a saddle ended up in a tree.
Lord Jesus, keep me alert to your constant presence.
Next, Reaching High Country.
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