Because It Is There
I wonder what it would be like to jump from a dizzying cliff, to leap in front of a train, to jerk the steering wheel hard on the freeway. Usually, the foolish flirt, the very wondering, leans toward grimmer certainty. You will jump, your body will fly across the tracks, your hands will twist the wheel, she whispers.
Fog thick above, we began that summer morning with a hike, my brother and I. The older by two years, stride has ceased to be my advantage. But we cut the Cain and Abel crap long before it ever got ugly. These days we are fondly resigned to our roles as lifelong contemporaries. My brother is the one person on Earth who, in my last years, I will have known since the first. We walk together through family comedy and tragedy, on and off the illumined and darkened stages of our careers, in and out of pews and rounds. On that day, we walked together the trail to Saddle Mountain.
The trailhead began at the state park in Clatsop County, a nature reserve along the Oregon Coast Range in the northwest corner of the state. Dave and I grew up in Portland, Oregon. We drove through these mountains year after year on family daytrips to Cannon Beach. There we molded bucket-shaped castles and marveled at Haystack Rock and its “needles”—monoliths of basalt eroded from the coastline, standing free and still like hunched giants in the surf.
More than ten million years ago, lava from the Grand Ronde Mountains poured through the valley where today the Columbia River runs. Rock still hot when it tumbled into the “Astoria Sea” erupted again in explosions of steam. Basalt fragments congealed into cobbled mountains and mounds of breccia. The Kilamook Indians believed these ocean rocks were their ancestral chiefs and tribesmen that had been turned to stone for angering the Great Spirit. One rock has a mouth-like cavity that seems to scream against the tide.
As children, we had our own stories telling the history and personalities of the rocks. To me they were witches stirring their bubbling cauldron. And because it was strictly forbidden by the coastal authorities, in my mind’s eye I delighted in climbing upon the crag folds of their capes and hearing their whispered spells.
Dave and I climbed quickly that morning, stopping now and again to take photos of wildflowers, mile markers, and clouds through cedar and hemlock and spruce. The elevation gain to the top of Saddle Mountain is more than 2,000 feet. The double-headed summit juts 3,200 feet above sea level, and between the two heads is an ancient crater, the hoarse void of a quieted volcano.
Irreverent, I belched loud and Dave laughed, like always. Walking along a crest, to the left of the trail was a lookout for viewing what would have been the Pacific Ocean. If one could, parent-like, peel back the cloud-white blanket to expose the cold shoals to the morning sun, I might have better grasped our true height. Instead, I fathomed the sky-covered sea as a bright bed that might bounce if leapt upon.
There was a globbish rock several meters beyond the lookout that resembled a sloppy drip-castle of wet sand made by a child. The very last drip sat like a cherry atop a sundae. Perhaps it was the saddle whose name the mountain boasts, perhaps a throne.
I walked down to the foot of the rocky prominence. Dave protested but I told him not to worry, that it might be a good picture. It seemed perfectly feasible to climb. Had it been a torte, a glutton would have found it perfectly feasible to eat. There were no prohibiting signs, like those on Cannon Beach. Goaded by the voice of that unblushed braggart, I placed one Nike upon the jutting rubble and lifted myself light, away from the safe hug of the mountain trail.
Dave called from somewhere behind me, “Don’t do it, Rach.”
A sheepish but true fold of my brain heard his warning, and yet the flirt had already set stern. There’s a foothold, she ushered, and another one. You’re doing it, see? After what seemed like scant effort, I was within grasp of the top. Soon I would sit astride the saddle throne. The last bit of ledge gave me pause. I would have to raise my right leg so that my foot rested on the stone hold that now touched my hip. Then I would have to lean back and heave upward, trusting an improbable and untested feat of physics. But I was so close.
My palms still sweat as I recall what happened next. With my leg cocked high like a loaded trigger, I stopped.
“Dave, can you believe this?” I trumpeted from the very vestibule of my grail to where my brother stood, sure-footed against the gentle slope. He said nothing. I turned to face him.
Neurons, mirror-like, shot his horror into the nerve endings in my legs, into the wrinkled nether of my gut. And then, I looked down.
That is when Dave took the picture. Later my father would call me, having seen the shot in Dave’s online photo journal, and he would tearfully ask me why I had done it. Later I would admire the rocky scepter from new perspectives: from the trailhead; from the ocean, where explorer John Meares first named the Mont de la Selle in 1788; from the point of view of my brother, who had the sense to stay on the trail behind the camera. Later I would struggle to conjure the whisperer who enticed me to crawl upon it, unharnessed, and I would revisit my childhood suspicion that these rocks were actually enchanted crones.
But right then, the saddle in reach, with a moment’s glimpse of the forested abyss, she sang with a cackle, you will slip; you will fall.
Frozen, I might have stuck there among the rocks forever like the Kilamook chief. A fated pillar of salt, I might have been just another woman who did not listen to her better angel.
I did slip, but just a little. When I was able to wiggle sensation back into my fingertips after the shock of recognizing death, I knew I’d never take the saddle. The rocks seemed eager to crumble. Dave was speaking in the measured cadences one would use to coach a suicidal sister in her bathrobe down off the ledge of a building. With vertigo in my heart, my shaky legs felt stripped of bone like a crippled undercarriage. Though I was literally above the clouds, my head felt like it was floating higher than I had climbed. Faint, I couldn’t get enough breath.
Control was the issue. I didn’t trust my weakened arms and legs to make good decisions anymore. There was something lurking inside that wanted me to jump, a sinister siren that had drugged and coaxed me to the edge. She seemed to have slipped back into whatever snakish recess she had slithered from, and I was left the victim of impulse, literally clinging to a rock for life.
Scolding, my father said one gust of wind would have swept me off the crag. “Fear is a powerful thing, Rachel. To climb you must learn to keep Fear in check, all the while being tempered by it to keep from being foolhardy.” He concluded I had a death wish.
I’m not sure it matters how I got down; only that I did. I’m not sure it matters either why I clambered after the saddle in the first place. People say they climb Everest “because it is there.” Absurd though it may be, so too must we then live because we are.
My brother and I didn’t speak much more on Saddle Mountain. I was grateful for the time together, ever more grateful it was not our last time. We have kept the photo to speak for itself as evidence of the preciousness of life, of the heroics of risk, as the sort of seed that might sprout a legend in centuries beyond our own. For me, the climb was a momentary taste of the wanderlust felt by the explorers who first stepped onto these shores and dared to scale these peaks. I imagine geologist James Dana—the first to see the view that I saw, or perhaps it was a Kilamook Indian before him—ventured to the top for the same reasons as I, because it was there. Clark, too, may have sat astride the saddle to utter his famous phrase, “O! The joy! The ocian in view!”
The accident of discovery is as extraordinary as the improvisation of existence. Like a tissue fluttering round in a zephyr’s curl, I was flattered and blown to new heights by a teller I have never met, but who I know quite well. Her alluring hiss still spins my fool’s heart; it is a miracle that I live, so frightful is my wondering.
Rachel Hammer is a medical student at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine (class of 2015) and an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Seattle Pacific University (class of 2013). Though she considers Portland home, she currently resides in Rochester, Minnesota.