Weekly Peakly Volume 17
Or: The Woodpecker Incident
Good tidings, Peakers! I hope everyone’s November is going swell as we dip further into fall and ramp up for all the delicious American holidays that involve food. (I’m very fond of this season, overall, but Thanksgiving is beloved because it’s all my favorite foods crammed into one meal).
Today’s trail is the short and sweet Bear Ridge, tucked in the middle of Issaquah, WA. In the hopes of saving myself some gas costs, I opted to do this hike after work, as the building where I spend my weekdays is far closer than where I spend my nights. It meant a quick hop across a couple of roads rather than an extraneous commute (plus I’d get the full weekend to recover, which was a nice prospect).
The very first obstacle I encountered with this trail - as with a handful of others - was the parking. Parking will forever be the bane of my hiking endeavors. I flew by the spaces completely my first time around, as the “lot” for this trailhead is a small dip on the side of the road that has room for about three cars. It’s easy to miss in either direction and it took some squinting to find it.
It was about three in the afternoon when I finally tweaked the key to my car into the Off position, gathering all my things and hopping out to see what this trail was about. There was signage right at the beginning warning of wildlife, which was worrisome and exciting. Some of the trail reports I had seen on the website mentioned that other hikers had seen bears, but that had been a few months before. I didn’t know if the bears would still be out and about this late in the year, but I had some anxiety about it all the same.
I did take the time to look up “what to do if bear” on Google, and I was amused and terrified to note that one of the suggestions when faced with an angry bear is to “fight back”. I’m not even joking, that’s in like, the top 4 suggestions on most of the posts I saw, and I was struck with images of little old 5’3” me getting in a fistfight with a grizzly. I’m pretty sure who would win that fight, though my life is weird enough that anything is possible, I guess.
I shook off my trepidation about the signs and headed onward, stubbornly determined to hike despite the fact that I was tired from work and scared of bears and it was gloomy and cold and I wasn’t even in a good mood and the hike just wasn’t jiving with me and I was kind of hungry and really wanted some fucking cake and there sure as shit wasn’t gonna be any cake on a trail known for bears unless shit got really weird…
I was about three days out from starting my period, so there was a maelstrom of discontent spinning in my head. The thing that I like most about hiking, though, is that no matter what mood I start out in, if I put my head down and push through it, before long it’s lifted and I remember what it feels like to take a deep breath and smile. And, you guys, I needed that really bad this time around.
My father had recently passed away. I’d been on the wrong antidepressant for a couple of months. Something else had triggered an awakening in my PTSD. It had been a rough week capping off what has been a pretty rough…ever.
The point is, I started out as a grumpy bitch at the beginning of the hike, but found my stride without too much effort, even if I remained a bit existential and morose (I did yell at a flock of crows that if they found my good luck and success out there somewhere they should bring it back, because it didn’t seem to be in my pockets anymore…)
I found myself enjoying the hell out of the scenery, even though this was a low elevation trek. I’ve gotten sort of addicted to that rush of making up the steep inclines, pushing my way through the trees, and seeing the whole of the world spread out before me. I’m so into the heights and the wind that I sometimes feel resentment for shorter, lower hikes, because I have trouble imagining the “payoff” at the end of it will be worth it. Of course, the “payoff” is never the point, the journey is, but when I’m looking at pages of potential trails and trying to choose which one it’s going to be for the week, it’s easy to forget the journey and just want to find something neat to get to.
This hike seduced me early on because it was thick with trees that sported all my favorite fall colors. It was a thin trail, as well, so it felt like the woods were much closer knit. It was also empty of other hikers (for the most part, there were two gentlemen that scared the shit out of me as they both said “hi” before I realized they were there and I panicked thinking it was a talking bear because I don’t have a good grasp on reality when surprised), and the lack of company made me feel like I owned the path. With the business and onslaught of tragedy that had been happening to me lately, this felt like the first time I’d had a moment “alone” in a good while.
I live alone now, but I’m rarely disconnected from people. I’ve always got my phone, and I tend to respond to messages quick unless I’m drowning in depression. There are also my cats, who are pretty insistent on bothering me at all hours of the waking day. When I go hiking, though, the cats remain at home, and I’ve gotten into the habit of putting my phone into airplane mode. I can still use the GPS and the maps but won’t get the odd message coming in here or there if my phone happens to snag some signal. That means there are no interruptions to my flow of thoughts, and my brain has time to really sift through the garbage it collects daily.
In summation, I was enjoying the hike and the relative quiet.
Which brings us to The Woodpecker Incident.
So, I was meandering along with my music turned down low. I wanted to be on my guard for those bears, since they could attack at any time (not really, that’s a reference to one of my favorite YouTube Channels, and if you haven’t watched this lovely Polish man steam-press playdough animals, you haven’t lived yet). I was, though, trying to be alert, which meant I could hear a lot more of the natural forest-y sounds than average.
As I trailed along (heh), I heard an odd thumping that was unlike anything I had heard before, which made me stop in my tracks. At first I was convinced it was some kind of bear and so I yanked my music out of my ear and started prepping for the fisticuffs of my life because I was determined that “mauled by a bear in the woods” was not going to be how I go out. I looked around nervously, not sure where the sound was coming from, but also not seeing any bears.
As I listened, it sounded so strange and out of place. You know those sort of deep, hollow thumping sounds that you hear on TV doctor dramas when they are giving someone a sonogram and find the heartbeat? It sounded like that. Deep and inside something, echoing in a way that felt like someone had pressed their chest up to your ear so you could hear their pulse. I tilted my head, trying to listen harder, trying to quiet my own racing heart so I could figure out what the fuck was happening.
That’s when a big piece of bark smacked into my face.
I yelped, naturally, jumping back half-convinced that I had been attacked by a very small, flying bear (told you, I don’t have a great grasp on plausibility when scared). The bark, which was tangled in my hair, fell free as I moved, hitting the ground with unceremonious normalcy. I realized I wasn’t immediately dying, which was nice, and as a bonus action I realized I could no longer hear the thumping sound. I could also see more bits of soggy bark falling from above.
I looked up, and way at the top of a massive tree was perched the most furious woodpecker I have ever seen. To be fair, I haven’t seen many woodpeckers, but this one was hopping mad, and I imagine that most other woodpeckers aren’t this enraged. And this feathered dinosaur was actually peeling bark off the branch it’s on to fling down at me, because apparently it didn’t like my style.
I, perturbed as all hell that a fucking pissy drill bit with feathers had made me think I was about to die, was not in a mood to accept the woodpecker’s abuse while lying down. Or while standing meekly.
So, I yelled at it.
Listen, it wasn’t the best of plans, it being a bird and all, but it was the first thing that popped into my head. As someone who spends a fair bit of time yelling at cats, yelling at animals comes second nature to me. Which is how I found myself in the woods, hands on my hips, looking up at an enraged jackhammer and shouting, “Hey, fuck off, I’m just passing through.” As though if I told it I wasn’t staying for tea then all would be well.
I think one of the strangest things to happen to me yet - which is saying something, if you know me well - is that for some reason, against all logic and odds, telling a woodpecker to fuck off seemed to work. I imagine that it nodded in begrudging approval, surprised by my courage, though I couldn’t see it well enough to confirm this concept. The bird did stop throwing bark at me, though, and spared one lingering glance that seemed to say “Ay, you’ve got Moxy, you can stay”, before it resumed battering the branch with its beak.
It was then I realized that the strange thumping I had heard was the reverberations of the woodpecker’s work. Even though it was all the way at the top of the tree, the sound was echoing all the way down the trunk, thrumming to my ears like a hollow heartbeat. I listened for a moment before reaching out and gingerly placing my palm on the tree.
Sure enough, I could feel the pecking, all the way down at the bottom. I closed my eyes, and it felt so much like a heartbeat that I imagined I was checking the pulse of the universe, feeling it with my own palm.
There are few moments where I have felt so connected with the world and overwhelmed with wonder, all over such a small thing.
After several deep and exhilarating breaths, I moved on, heading back up the trail. The hike continued to be pretty, I continued to be a bit moody and existential. I finally reached the “ridge”, which was a large rock in front of where the trail split into a different one (which I will tackle some other day). I ended up standing on top of the rock, shouting at the sky about what the fuck my purpose is.
I think, when a lot of things seem to happen at once, we can feel rudderless. I’m one of those people that believes “everything happens for a reason”, or more accurately “you can find meaning in anything that happens to you”. It takes work, it takes thinking, and it takes determination to pull that off, because there is so much in this world that feels horrible and senseless. But you can make sense of it and use all of it as fuel to move yourself forward. That much I believe. Yet, when things really cake on, I can go through phases where I feel like maybe I’m wrong. About that, about who I am, about everything. It’s in those moments that I’m my most vulnerable, because the world and everything I know about it feels built on a shaky lie and will come tumbling down to crush me at any moment.
For the second time on my hike, I looked up and shouted. I had meant to shout a question. Something like “What am I supposed to do?” or “What does it all mean?” or “Where am I even going?”. But when I opened my mouth, I found that I had so many questions I wanted to ask at once that words weren’t enough to express them, so I just yelled. Unintelligibly.
I started asking my questions. Asking all of them. I was blathering on a mile a minute, talking to the stones and trees as though they surely had answers. Oddly enough, I kind of got them. Not in such a literal sense, of course, I am not so enthused by trees that I believe they’re talking to me. But as I asked these questions that had been running around me in circles for the past few months, I found that I suddenly had the answers to them.
Things crystallized and became clear, and I knew what it was I had to do. I knew the way forward just as surely as I knew the way back to my car. It made sense, it made me feel purposeful again, and it renewed my sense of hope in the future. Which, really, was the only answer I wanted in the end.
It was about five by the time I started to head back, and I lost daylight towards the midway point of the return. Last time I was caught out at night I ended up stumbling without a light, but since then I’ve purchased a nice flashlight, and I’m happy to report that it worked wonders.
I made it back to my car, existential crises behind me, and headed home to ponder the nature of woodpeckers and answering your own questions.
Mistakes and R E G R E T S:
1. I’ve lost my hat. My beanie that I was using every time it rained. I have no idea where it got off to, and I regret that because it was quite cold and my ears resented being out in it. That’s about the only thing I can think of that I regret, though.
Hot Takes for Hikers:
If it Says “Hi”, it’s Not a Bear
That should probably go without saying, but I was still convinced every noise was going to be a bear. And really, if I was expecting bears and heard someone say “hi”, what’s more terrifying than the prospect of a bear that can speak? In any case, my hot take for today is to remember that even if you feel alone in the woods, you should be prepared to run into other hikers anyways and they might shout hello so as not to surprise you by popping out of the fog unannounced. And this would be a very effective and normal interaction if you aren’t me and convinced that everything is a bear oh god it’s bears all the way down.
Song of the Hike: Fly by Night by Rush. For obvious reasons.
Animals Seen: One furious woodpecker, three weird beetles, and two hikers who were not bears.
Mood: WHERE BEARS? WHERE THE BEARS AT?
Trail Rank: No bears, but the rock was quite nice. Would pass the Harrowing of the Woodpecker again.