Get Your Pagan Self into the Woods
by Catherine Harper
While the pagan religions are frequently generically classified as “nature-based,” pagan culture and practice often seems to grow and flourish the most in and around urban centers. The density of people and social volatility, the greater tendency toward liberalism and an atmosphere that encourages the exchange of ideas … it’s not hard to see why. And perhaps in the cities, where at times our relationship to the natural world seems strange and contorted, we feel most strongly the need for that connection.
(Of course, I sometimes question the whole classification. Not all pagan traditions are so closely tied to real or imagined agricultural roots. And while all may be said to be tied to nature, what then does that not cover? The sky turns equally over city, meadow or forest. There are seasons on the street, as there are on a mountain, and wilderness of a sort in an industrial basin. Unless we are to posit that humans, or the works of humans, stand outside of nature, what does the phrase “nature-based” really mean? But not to belabor the point — many people in the pagan and magical communities feel drawn to, or some reverence toward places and systems of life where the touch of humans is less evident.)
One of the changes in my own practice, over the years, has been a gradual shift of interest away from magical forms and rituals toward a simpler practice dealing with direct connection and experience and contemplation. From being a city girl, fascinated with the natural world but having limited wherewithal to explore it outside of an urban environment, I’ve moved out a bit further, planted my garden, learned to drive, picked up a good pair of boots and sought a portion of my connection with the natural cycles among the mountains, among trees and streams, flowers and mushrooms, snow, sun, wind and rain.
I don’t do a lot of formal ritual anymore. In the woods, if I do anything more than just being there, it is usually simple. A small pile of stones by the side of a stream. A candle lit in darkness. A charm woven of needles or grass, hung from the branch of a tree as a gift and remembrance. I go into the mountains far less to change them than to be changed by them, that the malleable stuff that is my substance may be shaped by these other forces, vast and enduring.
Although there can be a lot of power in ritual, I find that for me the undeniable reality of these experiences grounds me, giving me a simpler but firmer foun-dation. At some level, I may strip down and plunge into a snow-melt fed stream for purification. But even more important, it is simply that I am there, the stream is there and that my soft skin comes to know that water. (Brrr!) I touch, and am touched; the symbol fades before the reality.
There is a feeling among many people that spending time in the wild is something that pagans ought to do. I think such a sense of obligation can only do us harm — there are as many ways of being pagan as there are people who so identify. It seems best to me to strive to understand our own callings and approach those things with delight. (Especially since most of us are already called to many things, and finding balance amidst such abundance is already no simple task.) And yet, it does seem like I know a lot of people who would like to spend more time in the woods, or mountains or untended places by the sea, but who don’t, not even because of the press of time and events by themselves, but because the initial steps are a little too unknown, the research a little too time-consuming, the equipment not entirely familiar. At any one time, that first trip out — or perhaps the second, or fourth — takes a little more preparation than that trip is quite worth.
And so I have for you a modest guide that I hope will help you on your way if you are wanting to get out for the first few times.
What to Bring
Clothing: The basic rule is comfortable, sturdy clothes. Your clothing should allow you to move freely, including scrambling over the odd pile of rocks, or other kinds of moving that might not be part of your everyday life. It should not be likely to be damaged by branches or thorns and it should protect you from the same. Wearing multiple layers is practical, as they can be added or removed to adjust for changing conditions. And conditions do change, the cool day turning blazing hot, the sunny day turning into a thunderstorm. Cotton, as comfortable as it is for many situations, is often not the best choice — it absorbs water too readily and dries too slowly, and so often is cold and uncomfortable when wet. If you have them, lightweight wicking fabrics will serve you well. You can also count on wool, when it’s practical.
Footwear: Good, well-fitted hiking boots are one of the best investments I can recommend for anyone. But if you aren’t hiking more than a few miles, and don’t have ankles that are unusually susceptible to being twisted, any pair of sturdy, supportive shoes will do. Keep in mind that trails are often muddy. Bring waterproof shoes if you have them, and remember that thick wool (or hi-tech synthetic) socks will give you better cushioning and will function better when wet. Also, if you’re going to be walking more than is your usual habit, it’s really not a good time to break in new shoes.
Protective gear: At minimum, I’d recommend a lightweight, water-resistant jacket. (I have one that packs to about the size of an orange.) A hat with a brim for keeping water or sun out of your eyes can be a good idea, as can sunglasses, though it does depend a bit on the time of year and weather. If it’s hot, and you don’t want to cover up, bring sunscreen. Insect repellant is often a good idea too.
Companionship: It’s easy to both over- or understate the hazards of time spent in the wilderness or relative wilderness. One is fairly unlikely to run into serious predators, human or otherwise. But even minor injuries can become serious if they prevent you from returning to the comforts of civilization. (I once fell while climbing up the side of a ravine not much more than a mile from where I lived, putting a deep slash, almost six inches long, up the inside of my leg. Not very far out, but far enough so that no one could hear me. I did get the bleeding to stop, and hobbled home, but it was a sobering event.) These dangers are greatly, greatly lessened by not going alone. It is, to be fair, a rule that almost everyone breaks sometimes. But think about it.
Navigational Material: Classically, you should carry a map and compass. Though if you’re not used to navigating by these means, I don’t know how much they’ll help you. Bring tools appropriate to your trail, whatever it may be — directions, a map, a GPS… and if the trail requires more than you know how to use, save it for another day. Remember, also, that it’s easier to get turned around once you’re off a trail than it might seem.
Food: Even if you don’t think you’ll need it, even if it’s just a sports bar or a handful of trail mix, bring some kind of food.
Water: Same deal. Except more so. (After one 3-mile hike that turned out to be a very thirsty 10-and-a-half-mile hike, I always carry water-purification tablets in my purse as backup, though I use a pump filter if I’m hiking seriously. But this is probably overkill for most people.)
First Aid Kit: You can go fairly minimalist. Most of the time, it will probably go unused, but those few other times you’ll be happy to have it.
Flashlight: Again, you may not intend to be out after dark, but things happen.
Where to Go
Twin Falls, Ollalie State Park: This is one of my all-time favorite short hikes, and even better for being only a short drive from the city. A nice, fairly flat walk along a rushing river surrounded by wildflowers. And then the trees thicken into forest, and there’s a bit of a hill climb to an overlook to the falls. Then down, around, and up again, past more flowers, more river and some really wonderful old trees, and you reach a bridge suspended between two cliffs, offering excellent views of both falls. From the bridge you can follow the trail up to another overlook or two, or simply call it a day and turn back. (The trail eventually connects to a multi-user interstate trail, which, although convenient, is not nearly as scenic.) About 3 miles round trip to the overlook above the bridge.
To get to Ollalie State Park, take I-90 east to exit 34. At the bottom of the exit, turn right, and follow the road until the last left turn before a bridge (which is marked with a sign saying “Twin Falls” or something to that effect). Take that left, drive until you reach the parking area.
Barclay Lake: Barclay Lake is a little farther out, and perhaps a shade longer than the last hike, but less steep. It’s a rougher trail (if you have a tendency toward twisted ankles, make sure you’re wearing supportive boots) through woods with some of the most impressive mosses, shelf fungus and contorted logs that look like trolls. There’s a certain amount of scrambling over logs and some bridges that aren’t much more than logs, along a beautiful stream and at last to a mountain lake. It’s around three miles round trip, with only about 100 feet of elevation gain.
To get to Barcklay Lake, take Highway 2 eastbound, through Index, into the town of Baring. You will see a sign marked “Forest Service Road 6024 next left” and indeed, this is the left you want to take, even though it crosses the train tracks and becomes a fairly piddling road. It then turns into a gravel track, which you follow for about 4.5 miles until you reach the trail head.
The Old Robe Trail: Rushing water. Big trees. Fallen rocks the size of houses. Dark tunnels to creep through. This is one of the most dramatic easy hikes you’re likely to run across. Parking at the trail head, you’ll head down a hill and then across a mostly flat old railroad grade trail along the side of the river. At some points, portions of the trail have washed out. These are still navigable with caution, but do require that caution.
Take Highway 9 until you see a right turn onto Highway 92, toward Granite Falls. Follow 92 into Granite Falls, until it Ts out. Turn left onto the Mountain Loop Highway. (The last few times I’ve been in Granite Falls there has been construction.) About 7 miles out of Granite Falls you’ll see a sign on your right marking the Old Robe Trail.
Washington State is netted with trails. The Mountaineers have lots of publications giving descriptions and directions to many of them (including wonder books aimed at niches — best hikes for kids, best short hikes, best hikes with dogs…). Their Web site is www.mountaineersbooks.org. It lists the books available. There is also a good selection of these and other trail guides at REI, www.rei.com, which is a good source for any additional gear you might want as well.