Fall is becoming more and obvious to the eye in Oregon. I spent a lot of time on the road this week, following I-84 along the Columbia River. I watched Oregon change before my eyes from the lush, ocean influenced areas of the coast and the Willamette Valley into the the dryer areas of the Wallowas. Throughout the drive, though, I noticed how the leaves are yellowing, shifting the feel of the area, shifting the nostalgia I feel. There’s something about how changing leaves and cooler temps carry so much more to the memory. I’m reminded of siting on bleachers at football games, baked apples, jackets, that sound that’s similar to rain and the wind drops piles of leaves on the ground.
The roadtrip was to Wallowa Lake Camp and Retreat Center for an Oregon-Idaho Conference Camp Leaders meeting. In our conference of the Methodist Church there are six camps, so we periodically get together at one of our camps to talk big picture stuff and to visit with these peers and friends. I had currently only visited two or our camps (including the one I work at), so Wallowa Lake was a new one to check off the list. The Wallowa mountains are near Hell’s Canyon. They are beautiful rounded peaks covered in rock and grass carved out by glaciers. Just north of Wallowa Lake is where Old Chief Joseph is buried. Seeing this place for the first time, I developed a tiny understanding of how it could feel like a spiritual home for a group of people, like it is for the Nez Perce. The place seems to be speaking something to you, not really some specific message, more something that shapes and moves you.
Wallowa Lake Camp put Allyson and me up in a yurt near a mountain stream. We were tucked between two high mountains, and each time I stepped outside I wanted to climb the hills until I reached the top. There’s something magnetic about mountains–I want to walk until I’m on top of them, surveying everything around. Even if it takes days, even if its exhausting, there’s this nomadic spirit in me that is refreshed by exploration. Mountains are this giant landmark of a reminder that there are places to go.
During our time in this unfamiliar part of Oregon, I didn’t take a single picture. There was certainly no lack of subjects for photography, but I didn’t have a strong urge to document the experience by taking photos. Lately, I’ve backed off the use of my camera. I want to be a little more present where I’m at, and if I’m always thinking about how I want to present what I did to other people, I’m not really spending much time experiencing those things. It’s felt like I wasn’t really appreciating all I was seeing enough. I wanted to make it look a certain way so much I wasn’t really hearing what it had to say. I do want to share these things, I want to take my experiences and make something artistic out of them. But, I need to spend some time listening to do that. So, I just let my eyes be the camera this week, let my memory be the dark room.
On the last morning we spent at Wallowa Lake, I woke early and walked down to the lakefront. Near the shoreline, tall cottonwoods were full of papery yellow leaves. They remind me of the Tulip Poplars I know so well from where I was born, the first trees to turn each fall. The cool morning air blew, and the first sets of leaves dropped and floated through the air. Something felt familiar in this unfamiliar place. There was something I knew close enough. After breakfast and some long goodbyes, we loaded the camp GMC Jimmy up and started the nearly 8 hour drive back home to the coast.
Along the way, I asked Steve to identify a tree we were seeing frequently in the area. He said it was Ponderosa Pine, a species pretty prevalent in these dry areas of the West. We had a long conversation about his days backpacking, when he was a guide in his young days, leading groups on 50 mile excursions. He seemed to know the trees well. He told Allyson and me to find a place on one where a good bit of sap had run out and cup our noses over it then tell him what we smelled. On our way home, Steve saw a relatively quiet looking exit with a stand of Ponderosa Pines and pulled over. The three of us got out and crunched over the hundreds of fist-sized cones until we reached the black and dark brown trunk. I pressed my nose to its sap and sensed something like a crisp, maple pancake. I could smell sunlight and sweetness, cooked and caramelized. Steve said people often say it’s like butterscotch. I handed him a hardened piece of sap and he put it between his teeth and chewed it. It seemed like something he knew like an old friend.
This weekend, back on the coast, we welcomed four retreat groups, all totaling close to 200. This is one of the first retreats where I’ve seen several people I knew from earlier retreats. It’s a reminder that as the seasons continue to cycle, familiar things will reoccur. I will see them in new ways and know them more deeply. They will grow to mean more and more to me and say more and more about who I am. I felt more familiar feelings while walking from building to building, setting up meeting spaces for the groups to come, greeting them, taking care of their needs. It feels like there are places that know us, it feels like there are acts we were born knowing. But, on a different day, it looks like we become the places we travel, the places we go back to. I’m never sure which one it is for sure. I just know to keep watching, keep looking, keep letting the magnet pull me.