As we drive east into the Columbia River Gorge, the wind scours the sky clear of late winter clouds. By the time we get to Catherine Creek the wind has gentled considerably, apparently enjoying a job well done. The sky is a poem of blue stretched from horizon to horizon.
The strip that serves as a parking lot is full. An encouraging sign. I've been worried that we're too early for the wildflowers that are the reason we've driven two hours on a Saturday afternoon. It's Walt's birthday and he's chosen this place for the maiden voyage of his new camera. It's also our first hike of the year. The day is primed for joy.
The first thing I see are tufts of purple bells sprinkled in the rocky field that is the trailhead. The field guide is a frustration because there's not just one flower with purple bells and my impatience to know now makes the pages stick together. I decide I'll figure it out later and head for the bathroom. On the way back a woman asks me if I know whether the purple flowers are called Widow Grass. I reluctantly admit that I don't know, and rush back to my field guide.
Widow Grass. She was right, and I feel somehow as though I've been given a gift.
Walt and I set out on the trail. We walk side by side. He's focused on getting used to the new weight of his camera gear. I'm scouting perfect shots and new flowers.
"Look, Honey! Look at the way this clump of Widow Grass (now that I know its name, I can't say it enough) nests in the grass."
Usually on these hikes, Walt will reluctantly stop and humor my latest discovery ("Honey, look at this cool fungus!") with a mild acknowledgment of the wonder I'm experiencing. Today he's looking with different eyes. He has a new macro lens to go with his new digital SLR camera. He has a new appreciation for up close and little miracles of nature.
I can't remember at what point on the hike that I realize that he's being exactly the man I've been in despair of ever seeing again. He's focused, intent, engaged. He's fully present. He's fun to be with.
It might have been his willingness to shoot, at my request, the Crater Lake blue of the sky through the puzzle of oak branches overhead. It might have been when he turned his cap bill backward in that sexy bad-boy way so it didn't keep bumping the camera. It might have been when he got down on his belly to get a better shot of Yellow Bells framed perfectly against scales of gray bark.
It might just have been how purely happy he was.
The trail at Catherine Creek winds and climbs through an old homestead. Even though there is little left of the farm, pioneer ghosts and dreams hover over the scrub oak and rock landscape. There is magic here. Every flower we see today is new to me. Gifts from the soul of the place. I collect the names in my heart while Walt documents their existence with his camera.
Grass Widow. Yellow Bells. Oaks Toothwort. Desert Parsley, pink and yellow. Smooth Prairie Star. Western Saxifrage. Gold Stars.
I feel hope and eternity in these names.
The trail loops back toward the road along a rocky ridge where the wind, apparently rested, plays with our footing on the rough ground. It's hard to decide whether we're invigorated or intimidated by its power. We walk quietly in the buffet and buzz of the wind, a lovely connected silence full of life and love. Our heads are mostly down so that the wind and rocks don't have their way with us.
I become aware of a single melodic note floating on the air. A bird call that I haven't heard before. I stop and look up in time to see a male Western Bluebird, sky on top - rusty earth below, perched on a bush just close enough for me to be certain what I'm seeing. He sends out another perfect note. His mate, all earth and no sky, responds from another bush slightly farther away from us. They both fly as Walt tries to get closer for a shot, but I don't care.
In the currency of my naturalist life, a new bird is worth a whole book full of new flowers.
In the currency of my life as a wife, this day overflows with riches that I will be counting for the remainder of my days. Happy Birthday, Walt. Thank you for giving me the present of your full presence on this day. Thank you for giving me the present of renewed hope. Thank you for allowing me to love you.
Pictures by Walt Shucka