Sometimes you have to shake it up. Lie on your back and gaze up at the clouds. Turn over and and investigate a beetle at eye-level. Scramble off trail to breathe in the intoxicating fragrance of mock orange now in full bloom here in La Grande. Or you might just take a hike on the Umatilla Rim Trail.
When we think of western mountains, they rise high above the grassy valley floor into forest slopes and jagged peaks. That is unless you head over to the country between La Grande and Walla Walla and one of our fine wilderness areas–the North Fork Umatilla Wilderness.
There? The mountains seem upside down. You hike on a rim that replaces a valley floor experience and gaze down into folded fissures of forests and meadows. Headwaters of the Umatilla River begin below this open plateau and rush downwards.
Instead of hiking up to wildflower meadows to earn those “Hills are alive with the sound of music..” moments, you stroll through them before heading down into the depths of shadowy fir and spruce forests reverberating with pileated woodpeckers drilling into great snags.
Last Sunday, I took my first hike with the local women’s hiking group – a 14-mile saunter with women of all ages who are impressively fit and naturalists at heart. They like to stop and identify wildflowers and birds and take the trails less traveled.
In this upside down country, rivers flowed as wildflowers instead of water. Wandering off trail on Buck Mountain before it cants steeply into forests, we could almost hear the sound of flowers blooming like water rushing. Or was it the sound of butterfly and bee wings?
The trail dips into the shadowed forests so different from the classic open ponderosa pine country. We’d be cooled by the deep shade, cocooned by the muffling branches of spruce and fir, silenced by the needles underfoot, and awed by the magnificence of centuries-old trees and snags festooned in lichens and the life of forest birds. Ethereal songs of Townsend’s warblers dripped through towering branches. A varied thrush sang it’s one impossibly complex chord and then dropped the pitch a few seconds later. Our voices stilled. Our world became all that is green and shadowed and rich.
Then, we’d step out into the next wildflower slope and wend up again to the rim top to revel in views north all the way to Mt Rainier and Mt Adams. Our upside down world in a few steps would transform like a butterfly emerging from that cocoon into one blue sky, flower-filled expansive world where all you can do is gasp and throw your arms out wide.
When it becomes too dizzying, that’s the time to avert your eyes from far horizons to the intricacies of a penstemon flower tempting a bee to enter its purple tunnel. Time to watch the twitching mass of tent caterpillars in their woven web home on a currant branch- seeing them not as destroyers, but as providers of life, like food for birds. A little munching on leaves is a form of beauty, like the beauty of a dead tree chock full of woodpecker holes and nesting nuthatches and owls too.
I love places in nature that turn the mountains upside down and shake up my world view with every step. On that day, those fine women hikers added new insights I would have missed on my own. More than that? I met new friends in this new yet familiar world I now call home and cherished their insights and life stories. There, on the Umatilla Rim at the edge of the forever wild North Fork Wilderness, I learned again the lesson of receptivity to a world and to people who can shake us up.