The Hillside

When I looked up, the scene rising above me defied my understanding. The hillside held knotted redwoods, the gray of branches and trunks laced like teeth in gears. I couldn’t picture what could have caused the arrangement. This afters what? Logging? Wind? A minor god?

The scene reminded me of the childhood game of pick-up sticks, transferred to a hillside so steep I wondered if gravity was on sabbatical. I figured that this wasn’t one thing. It added logging to wind or storm plus logging. I couldn’t see how a bulldozer wasn’t involved, but with that pitch, I was unable to see how it was.

Motion at the left edge of the jumble drew my eye and I saw two of my companions, bikes on shoulders, ascending the mess, like three-limbed rock climbers. I rolled close, dismounted and looked up the hillside. What I saw was as incomprehensible as graffiti in a foreign language.

There is no other way around? The trail must be around here somewhere.

I stared. I couldn’t not stare. There was no metaphor for that.

We rode a trail into the forest to get away from both it and all. To get away from the chores, the city, modernity itself. Instead, we headed into the one thing in the forest that was, itself, impassible. The trick was to go no farther than necessary to skirt this conifer disaster before resuming our way up the trail.

As I grabbed the first horizontal trunk and steadied myself I considered what that meant to teach me. No metaphor could stand in for the scene; that spill of wood and leaf was a metaphor for something else.

I woke the next morning, sore. What does being sore mean? Aside from muscle recovery. What does sore tell me? I went for a mountain bike ride precisely because I didn’t want the sanitized experience of rolling skinny tires on asphalt. I wanted the wild of the forest.

That nearly impassable jumble of trunk and limb, whether natural in its catastrophe or made by the most adversarial of logging, was impossible to predict—wild, but unnaturally so.

Sore tells me I asked something of my body beyond my habit. Fitness aside, to be sore is to grow, the muscle fibers broken down under an unexpected effort, a visceral inversion of stasis.

Days later, I considered that trail and the challenge of passing that arboreal wreckage, and how I nearly balked. Why shy from the effort to climb over? The answer was simple. I wanted a wild that I could embrace with my feet on pedals. The soreness, though, told me I’ve done too much of that. Sore muscles are a kind of trail marker, a path unknown.

I do what I know because I do what I love. Which is why once I was over that tangle of timber, when my ass met saddle, what I felt was gratitude, which tells me something. If I only take in natural spaces that can be negotiated by bike, that’s a kind of sanitized experience. If I really want to grow, I’ve got to embrace the unknown—including that knot of wood.

The very thing I did not enjoy.

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