Sara was in town this past weekend. On Friday, she drove the six hours from where she lives to spend the weekend with me in Seattle. I woke up early Saturday in between her and Karin, two of my very best friends. We had downed four bottles of wine the night before and breakfast at Portage Bay was our first step in curing a tinge of hangover. Karin had a wedding to attend that day, so after parting ways with her, Sara and I headed out for a hike on the Old Sauk River Trail. From I-5 we took highway 530 to Darrington, Washington. From there we hopped on to the Mountain Loop Highway and headed south looking for the trailhead. There are certain roads that are spectacularly scenic and beautiful. Immediately, we noticed this was one of those roads, perfectly carved into the Mt. Baker Snoqualmie National Forest. The standout feature were the white birch trees lining both sides of the highway.
I had noted the trailhead was about 3.5 to 4 miles outside of town, but we came across several posts indicating a hike. Unsure of which one to take, I kept driving by the sign posts until Sara finally insisted we turn back and stop at one with some parked cars. Ten minutes later we were geared up in beanies, rain jackets and gloves. Not too far off the trailhead we met the Sauk River. Both the trail and river meander alongside each other through a lush forest of maples, old growth, moss and ferns. It was truly beautiful. The trail allowed for many chances to stop and look out at the flowing river. The massive build up of entire trees on the shore across from us was remarkable and really evidenced the power of water. Mist sat in the clearing above the river and stretched out through the trees that were still standing. The sky was practically white. Fallen leaves carpeted many sections of the trail, and though they were still a bit colorful, I knew the prime of Autumn had already passed. Every place our eyes went was an opportunity for discovery. Mushrooms, moss, leaves, ferns, wood, bark, stumps, sticks…. A couple of times we even came across the whole underside of a fallen tree, roots and all. It was like the wet earth had decided to unlock its handshake with the roots of the tree, opening itself up to let the whole tree slide out of its grip and fall.
It was a wet hike and we only encountered people at three separate times. Besides that, we were left by ourselves. It was a great place to catch up with my oldest and best-est friend. Sara lives in Eastern Oregon and I’ve probably seen her more in the last year than I have in the previous five years combined. I have known Sara since I first met her back in second grade, when she wore a thick headband and played wall ball everyday. As we got older, she became my best friend. Her family in many ways is like my second family, and despite not having lived in the same city since we both left for different colleges when were 18, Sara and I have remained close throughout the years. This summer I was honored to perform the marriage ceremony at her wedding, officially tying the knot between Sara and her other best friend Brian. Having moved back to the northwest a year ago, I have been fortunate to spend a lot of time with her both in Bothell where we grew up and in Baker where she now lives.
As we’ve been awarded more get-togethers over the last year, I’ve realized the girls we once were are not the women we have become. Sure we are the same people, but each of us has grown into ourselves. In the last ten years, we have both been working on becoming the people we want to be. For me, the last decade of my life has been monumental. Hell, it has been the first ten years of adulthood. The transitions that have taken place during that time are on a grander scale than I can even comprehend now. Undoubtedly Sara has been going through that exact same experience. So each time we come together now, it’s almost like a glimpse into the mirror of life. Through Sara and our interactions, I can see the patterns of change in each of our lifestyles, habits, personalities, interests and beliefs, as well as those elements which have not changed at all. Sara is still the precise planner that succeeds at whatever she decides to take on, but she is also more spontaneous than I remember. I had been so happy when she had told me she’d be coming out to spend a whole weekend with me, and instantly I had wanted to go hiking together. And there we were on the Old Sauk about an hour from where we had spent the first two-thirds of our lives. We both walked in silence for some time, listening to the pitter-patter on the hoods of our rain jackets, probably one of my favorite sounds.
“Walking along a river is like walking next to a friend,” I finally said to Sara. “Even if you were to get lost out here all by yourself, you’d have the river.”
“Yep,” she responded. “The river means survival.”
She may have been referring to the food source or the water source, which is completely true. The river would be your best bet at survival solely for those things. Of the two of us, Sara has always been the practical pragmatist and I have always been the deep thinking idealist. So unsurprisingly I had been more insinuating the notion that being near a river makes you feel you are not alone in some philosophical way; that it can bring about a sense of place, even when you’ve lost your way. The river is always there, and it always has been. You can look to it as a guide, not only for food and water, but also on a deeper level as a source of hope.
In a sandy cove of trees just steps from the Sauk, we munched on sandwiches while standing in the drizzling rain. Rocks in the shape of a circle were the only remnants of what we presumed was at some point a fire pit, and we both thought this would be a great place to come in the summer. According to our online resources, the trail is only three miles out and three miles back. However, we ended up covering 7 miles in all. The WTA has been doing some work on the trail and it appears as though new gravel was recently spread across the path in some areas. At one point, this manicured gravel trail spit us out at another gravel parking area, but we had decided to continue onto the “natural looking” trail alongside the river, and we never came to an end point. We turned around only because it was getting later.
The trip back to my car seemed to fly by, and soon we were settled into our seats with the heat on. We checked out the road map to see if we could continue on the Mountain Loop Highway instead of backtracking the way we had come. Even though it was late in the day, we forged into the unknown and soon the paved two lane road became an unpaved one lane route barely wide enough to turn around. As much as the Mt. Baker Snoqualmie National Forest is beautiful it is spooky and dark, but in a good way. What light was left in the day was swallowed by the dark canopy of trees and I so happened to have one headlight out. This didn’t seem to help us when the rain started to fall heavier and the road opened up into giant potholes that we couldn’t see until the very last second when my one headlight shone on to them, and by that time it was too late to maneuver around the deep puddles. Both of us breathed a sigh of relief when my tires finally hit pavement again, and we drove the hour or so back to Ballard before having sushi and watching a movie.
Hiking with Sara not far from where we grew up together was a chance to revisit my oldest friendship in the area of the world I’ve known the longest, and I realize I am still learning about both. It was also a chance to reflect on where I have been and where I am going. I have always called the NW home, even when I lived elsewhere. But it is not until now, as I am actually living here again, that I realize I am excitedly overwhelmed by the amounts of wilderness all around me. I cannot wait to explore. I have also come to the realization that Sara and I will most likely never live in the same city again, yet I feel completely at ease knowing that we are moving along our own paths, though they may be different, because we always seem to meander back towards each other time and again. I look forward to the next time we journeyfoot the same path together.
Thoughts of this weekend bring to mind the lyrics in Brett Dennen’s song “By and By”: “I don’t know if I’d survive, without a friend like you in my life.” The river is like a friend, and yes Sara, because it means survival.