Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Where do you think we are?

"Where do you think we are?" At this point my friend Mark Vande Kamp's question is more than a merely academic inquiry. It's a cool January morning and I can say with a high degree of confidence that we are somewhere in the Taylor Mountain Forest, but I take off one of my gloves to indicate the spot on the map with greater precision.

"I'm pretty sure we're here," I say indicating the convergence of two dimly dashed lines. "Down there," I wave, "we should find this little trail." I point to an even dimmer dotted line. Mark and I point our bikes in the direction I've indicated and find something an optimist might call a trail.

Mark is the ideal companion for such adventures, for he's the kind of fellow who gets up on a rainy morning and rides the twenty or so miles to my place simply because he'd earlier said that he would. While we ride we discuss important matters of the day, comparing Felini's "8 1/2" with "Superbad" and trying to decide if Sherlock Holmes is more or less fictional than Angelina Jolie.

Taylor Mountain is the area I've been exploring lately and while that doesn't mean I know it well, I do know it well enough to show Mark some of the things I've found there so far. Today we are here to push beyond what we know. We have a map with us, but we both know the truth of the adage "the map is not the terrain."

This map is a close approximation of the terrain but it's unique in that while it has the problem common to all maps, the problem of reducing three dimensions to two, it has the added complexity of being askew from reality in the fourth dimension as well. This map is untethered from our time. It is an optimist's map of the future, drawn over a lost map from the past. And Mark and I are stubbornly using it to navigate this undiscovered country we insist on calling the present.

Perhaps I should explain.

Taylor Mountain is a chunk of land about 8 miles south of Issaquah, land that had been owned by timber interests until a few years ago. It is now owned by the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks. Well, most of the land is owned by the county, a couple of parcels are owned by private citizens, folks with strong senses of the boundaries of private property, folks who put up very serious-looking warning signs expressing their desires for privacy and fervent beliefs in the second and fourth amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Having a strong desire to keep our bikes and bodies in their current lead-free configurations, Mark and I take their boundary issues seriously and thus try to play close attention to our map.

But our map is one of utmost optimism, drawn over the old roads and trails from the logging days and labeled "Public Use Concept Map." So it shows trails-yet-to-be and roads-that-once-were and we, we are Magellans of the moment, navigating an uncertain present. Even the most modern GPS could not tell us exactly where hope and reality converge, this is something only we can discover.

The tiny dotted trail is more notional than actual and after fifteen minutes of hiking with our bikes through terrain filled-in with fallen trees, underbrush and blackberry vines more tenacious than ourselves, Mark and I retreat to map lines of more definite pigmentation.

Our next attempt is more promising, not exactly inviting but at least not so openly hostile to our passage. Someday, the map assures us, this will be an equestrian and hiking trail but in the here and now it is series of narrow gaps in the undergrowth, hopefully marked here and there with fluttering bits of blaze-orange plastic. We crash downward off the mountain, riding small bits where we can, walking others, scrambling and puzzling now and then.

The crossing of Holder Creek will be lovely in the future, We can almost see the bridge they'll build because most folks wouldn't want to ford a knee-deep stream. Most folks don't know that if you keep moving the water is not that cold and that wool socks keep proving their worth when you push beyond the comfortable trails you know. Most folks don't know the things Mark and I have learned to take for granted.

We gradually pass through the future and as the trail winds closer to the outer boundaries of the land we hear the cars rolling on contemporary pavement. The path becomes clearer and more rideable as the map converges with the present. Now our tracks are laid down clear, tempting others to follow back along our course until they run, baffled, into a future yet to arrive. I'm reminded of an other trip, years ago, when my friend Andy and I followed paths that became faint elk trails and then nothing at all from Roslyn all the way to theTeanaway River. When we came splashing across the river and into the campground, other campers asked where we'd come from. "Roslyn," we said. "I didn't think there was a trail," they said. "As near as we know, there ain't," we answered.

For better or worse, we build the future. Stumbling, our tracks are something others follow, assuming we must have known something they do not. Can we tell them that our maps work best because of the empty spaces, because of the spots marked "Here Be Dragons?" They wouldn't believe us if we did. And years from now, when these tracks are well tread, we will have fled, "No one goes there any more, it's too crowded."

Looking back at our tracks coming out of the woods, Mark comments, "You know, a lot of folks wouldn't even hike that." "Yeah, not yet," I agree.

I can't rail against a more accessible future, one that my own tracks are helping build but somehow I know that when it's built it won't be home for me. My tracks will be somewhere else, some other dotted trail torn loose from time. A future yet to be or a past mostly forgotten. A spot not perfectly triangulated on the map. "Where do you think we are?" If I knew for certain, we wouldn't have to go. "I'm pretty sure we're here."
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