It seems ritualistic to take stock of where you are in life and who you want to become during the new year. Across cultures the new year represents a time to begin again; for many, it’s a time to set benchmarks and goals. It was around that time, over a few beers and when the rain is heavy in Portland, Oregon, that my good friend Phil and I were assessing our weight in salt and synthetic currency. As countless others do, we made promises and set goals with grand plans for the year that awaited us. The beers likely helped increase the grandeur of our decisions.
For 27 years, the Summer Solstice has largely gone unnoticed in my days. Perhaps because it’s not a consistent date on the calendar from year to year or that for a non-agrarian society, its significance has waned. Either way, this year Phil and I felt compelled to mark this date on our calendars. It seemed fitting that the longest hike of our life (thus far) should fall on the longest day of the year. Halfway through the year, this seemed like a good way to measure the progress of the goals we had set out to achieve.
The Wildwood Trail begins three miles from Portland’s city center, just outside the borders of one of the nation’s largest urban forest reserves, Forest Park. The trail acts as the main artery for a system of more than 70 miles of trails that traverse the Tualatin Mountains, more commonly known as the West Hills of Portland. Winding the length of the park from the southeast to northwest, parallel to the Willamette River, the countless folds of the Wildwood condense 30.25 miles of trail into 8 miles of park.
Phil and his wonderful girlfriend, Whitney (who provided support with car rides, water refills, beer and surprise candy to keep our spirits up) made for an incredible team. Whitney is an accomplished endurance athlete who has challenged herself in four Ironman competitions and her experience was invaluable to both Phil and I.
Morning in the City
Our journey began at 6:27 a.m. Dropped off just outside of the Oregon Zoo and in Washington Park, we began our hike along the Wildwood. Well-manicured “natural spaces” and a stunning morning view of Mt. St. Helens soon gave way to a pocket of old growth Redwood forest. Another mile or two in and the trail is crossed by telephone wires, nestled within the trees, connecting to large homes that overlooked the trail and surrounding woods.
We started at a slow saunter, thermoses of coffee in hand, morning sleep still in our eyes. Our pace began to pick up after the first few miles, until we came to an abrupt halt. Something we hadn’t considered until the road was suddenly in view — we had to cross Burnside Street during morning rush hour. Three lanes of automobiles sped east and west during their morning commutes. Despite the hold up, and tenuous crossing, it was a great reminder that we also should be at work on this Monday, but weren’t.
Passing the parking lot of Pittock Mansion, this was the final marker of “city life.” A short five miles in we came across the well known and heavily graffitied Witches Castle at the intersection of the Lower Macleay Trail. Over the course of the 30 miles, Phil and I estimated that we saw about 25 people and six dogs. From this point on, we saw maybe six individuals.
Beyond the Lower Macleay, the Wildwood truly started to live up to its name. Though the entire trail is within the city limits of Portland, the forest felt more remote and grew more wild as we traveled. The signage seemed to deteriorate with each mile. We went nearly five miles without seeing a soul. There was just the lush green forest, the trail beneath our feet, our conversation and the songbirds to keep us company.
Nearly 17 miles in, at the intersection of Fire Lane 5, Phil and I saw a familiar face. Whitney had hiked a mile on Fire Lane 5 to fill our water reservoirs and treat us with candy and iced espresso. At that point, Phil and I felt great. After changing our socks or shoes and with stomachs newly filled, we continued on with spirits high.
At this point each step was a personal record. Neither Phil nor I had ever hiked more than 20 miles in a single trek. We had officially entered new territory and began to recognize the effects the long trail. Miles 23 and 24 seemed to go on forever. Every quarter mile of the trail is marked by a blue diamond and a number, 23 1/4, 1/2, 3/4, 24. Those two miles seemed to be the turning point.
From there on we became droids, losing parts as we rolled along. A spring that sprang from our knee, a hip that needed greasing, an ankle that lost a screw. The Wildwood cut into the side of the West Hills and an unforeseen consequence of its incision was the angle of its slope. For 30 miles, the trail tilted to the right, moving downhill. The sharp angle wore on our bodies.
The physical toll couldn’t be denied any longer and for the final few miles, it became a mental game. A conscious effort to move one foot and then the next. Afraid to lose any momentum we only rested our aching bones at the level bridges that connected the hairpin turns in the folds of the hills.
11.5 Hours, 30.25 miles.
There at the end, 30.25 miles, Whitney stood to congratulate and photograph us both. We joked and laughed about the length – “30 more!”
Feet swollen, we cracked a beer that had also made the journey with us. A symbolic act of brotherhood and endurance – if we can do 30 today, how many can we do tomorrow? If we can do 30 miles today, what else can we do tomorrow?
Without a doubt, I chose the right partner to suffer 11 ½ consecutive hours and 30 long miles of my company. Phil and I talked about everything from philosophical beliefs to fart jokes and back again. It’s a great feeling to accomplish a goal and an even better feeling to accomplish it with one of your best friends.
Get out. Get Wild.
Portland is lucky to have access to a place that can feel so remote and wild so close to the city. It’s credit to the civic leaders, whose foresight saw the value in preserving this unique place and credit to those who work tirelessly to maintain the park. If you’ve spent time in Forest Park or simply feel so compelled, I encourage you to donate to the Forest Park Conservancy.
Solstice or not, I believe it’s important to connect with nature and to challenge yourself. And just to be clear, it doesn’t take 30 miles to do so. Just get out and get wild.