“I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.” ~ Henry David Thoreau
In the book, “Walden,” by Henry David Thoreau, there is a particular lean towards the philosophy of solitude and the intense pleasure that it can give. The sense of solidity in the world. Being one with nature and the senses. I had always personally expressed that when you are alone you experience things differently. I see that especially in writers. Writers have a constant inner commentary on their experience that is running as they do, feel, think and observe, when there is no one else there to comment too. I am not a writer. I am a painter, and I write songs. I experience solitude from that sort of reference point, looking for music or trying to memorize the shadows of one tree limb against another. Thoreau is a writer of prose and philosophy, so his experiences tend to be more poetic than mine. But I tend to put my own spin on his work and read Walden years ago. I tried to go out right away and start experiencing small amounts of what he teaches in Walden.
I started hitchhiking at the age of fifteen to explore the sense of being alone and to find the places that I could experience solitude. He says, “I have never felt lonesome, or in the least oppressed by a sense of solitude…“, and in that we can, if given the chance and peace of mind, all come to the same place. To learn to forgive the quiet. To learn to live in some silence every day.
Today I took the long drive through the mountains and the Columbia gorge to my fathers house. On my way back I made the extra steps in my solitude, top down on the car, Dylan talking about my scars, and the sun shining through the clouds at precise and perfect moments to capture an instance of God watching in rays filtering through the trees and clouds. I took my very lately infrequent trip up to a place I call The Rock. It has no special meaning to any maps that I have ever seen and has no certain markings for its path. You have to know where it is to get there. Here is how to find what I think is Thoreau’s solitude.
I drive down Hwy 14, east along the Columbia River. Passing over Cape Horn and into Gifford Pinchot Forrest. We are climbing in a barely perceptible upward direction to 4400 feet. One gets the impression that they are driving through a giant’s tunnel. Cliffs and mountains surround me, mighty Columbia below; small snatches of sky can be glimpsed through the rock and the green. Hundred-year-old trees and patches of empty, where there might have been a burn. I try not to think of John Denver songs, John Prine songs, “Daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County…” I’ve known this way all my life. The songs in my head are the songs sung with my family as a child on the way up here and the genetic memories of my grandmothers childhood on Red Bluff, my great grandfather’s homestead. I pass through Stevenson, Washington, about 53 miles from where I started, and think of my father, he left a life of city streets and smog to come up here and chew tree bark like Yule Gibbons when I was 13. He started to hate the city and the people in it. Said that place was crawling with them. A kind of friendly misanthrope. He writes novels about Native American spirituality mixed with Tolkien-type fantasy now. My uncle Russel, of the Umatilla Tribe who refused to lead his people, still lived here until his death a couple of years ago.
I spent the best parts of my childhood in these hills. My father, born on a reservation not far from here, taught me to find things you could eat and hopefully not die from in these woods. I learned to swim and dive from these waterfalls and lay naked on these rocks for hours of blissful sun drenching. I learned the tricks to real casting of the fly pole. Casting the fly out and skimming the surface of the water to get the fishes attention. Set all my fish free and slept at night in two sleeping bags, zipped together, my brother, my father, and I. We never used a tent, just us and the stars and my father’s dubious knowledge of constellations and myths for entertainment after the sun went down.
About half way between Stevenson and Carson on Hwy 14 is a wide spot to the right, off the road. If you aren’t expecting it you will miss it. There is a small dirt road I turn onto and park my car. I always lock up after grabbing my coffee, writing pad, and my guitar. When I am alone I can’t carry much, but I pack what I can in my bag and strap my guitar on my back. Its not far to walk, but it is a treacherous climb. I follow the little bit of road (about forty yards) and it turns into a trail. The trail ends at a cliff dropping about 400 feet to the basin of the Columbia River Gorge. I head up the rocky wall to the left of the drop and summit about 50feet straight skyward.
This is The Rock. The Rock sticks out of the side of the mountain like an immense balcony over the river. Looking over the side I can see the tracks of the Burlington Northern, toy like. I have seen eagles and giant hawks circling above me, Native Americans fishing for salmon below. I can see from the bend of the river where the Bonneville Dams’ second powerhouse starts in one direction, all the way to Home Valley and where Columbia’s knees bend. Up here there are no cars or people. The world of traffic and work and school and people are so far below that the only proof of their existence, right now, are myself and the tracks.
On the rock in the summertime grow blue and purple flowers, so vibrant in color and tiny in size that they seem like dots on Monet canvas. Plump, yellow buttercups and little mini daisies in the springtime, a carpet of moss to sleep away hours of morning sun. I think about Thoreau and Walden Pond, “I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself.” I am not with others, so I suppose that makes me alone. When I think of the word, solitude, I feel solid. I feel at the same time concrete and with out form. I am what ever my mind is at that very moment. Its as if, when I am up here, that I am not real if there is no one to make me speak. I am part of the Rock, the stillness, and the constant wind.
The wind and the stillness make me feel like praying to all manner of Gods. There is a power up here that I can never explain. Some kind of extra gravity that I don’t feel when I’m below. I feel weighted to the earth in a way that makes me more aware of the fragility of my body. The meekness of my existence. I am reminded of Sartre on the beach thinking of his relevance in size to the universe in relation to the pebbles on the beach. I am miniscule and the world is vast and overwhelming. I am so small and the Rock so unrelentingly high up off the safeness of the ground that I feel part of the wind and the birds. I could fall to my death. I could fall.
Yet I am not alone in my singularity, but part of a divine mix of insect and animal, and rain drenched grass. Planted firmly on this Rock, high up over the river and the old growth forest. Part of a planet in a solar system in a galaxy in a universe. Thoreau said it best, when in answer to accusations that he might be alone and lonely in the woods: “This whole earth which we inhabit is but a point in space. How far apart, think you, dwell the two most distant inhabitants of yonder star, the breadth of whose disk cannot be appreciated by our instruments? Why should I feel lonely? is not our planet in the Milky Way?”.
I rarely play music up here. I am always hoping that I will be inspired to write beautiful music that will slay the masses and make the world fall to my feet beyond the bounds of this Rock. Every time I come up here, though, I am too overwhelmed to do much more than breathe in and out. Take in air. Take in the moss and the trees and the eagle that might or might not show up over my head. I believe that if I could haunt after death I would come up here just to jump off again and again. I dream sometimes of jumping and floating safely to the island, the one I watch the fishermen push their boats onto, far out there in the middle of the river.