(Before I even start this posting, let me apologize once again for the silent weeks that have passed. To be honest, I found myself a bit overwhelmed by the enormity of this next journal entry. Cote and I have reached the moment where we are about to climb trees. The ones we have talked about, dreamt about, for so long. I have been struggling these past couple of weeks as to how to capture this entire experience into words, so that others would see and feel everything we saw and felt. In my journal, I have eight pages of written notes describing this one event from our 2-week rite of passage. Eight pages. When I sit and read over them, the words I scribbled take me back to the treetops. But my notes are a mess, they are raw and jumbled, and hold no true pictures for an outside reader. Thus, my challenge has become to somehow bring you along, to make you feel as if you were there climbing the trees with us. I hope I succeed. For if I do, you may then just find yourself sitting on a branch far above the world, taking in a view few have ever seen. An ocean of green will spread out before you, and you will be swept away by the beauty of it all. This was a once in a lifetime experience. I have but one chance to describe it, one chance to get it right, one chance to take you there.)
“I become one, as the trees become many.” ~ Hannah Witt, 2009
Today started early. Cote and I woke up in Eugene, Oregon, inside an out-dated, single-level, L-shaped Holiday Inn, which was clean but by no means fancy. The accommodations didn’t need to be, however. We were more wrapped up on what the next 24 hours were going to bring, than how pampered we could make our sleeping arrangements last night. This was it! This was the day! Cote and I were going to meet, and greet, and climb our trees. Real trees. Huge trees. Trees bigger than even our imaginations could begin to ascend. Not only would we climb them, but we would eat in them and sleep in them. How we were going to do all this, I still did not know. But I couldn’t wait to find out.
Debbie, one of the owners of Pacific Tree Climbing Institute, (the outfit we had booked), had given us some very helpful instructions prior to our arrival. Don’t eat too much. Don’t drink too much. Staying hydrated was good, but she advised us to avoid any foods that may upset our stomachs 24 hours before climbing, and to go easy on coffee and other beverages as well. She also gave us detailed driving directions. From our motel in Eugene, we were only about 25 miles from where we would climb, but she warned us it would take 90 minutes to get there. So we left by 8 am, and ended up an hour and a half later somewhere in the backwoods of Oregon.
The roads we traveled twisted an turned, and completely erased our sense of direction. Trying to find the exact spot where we were to meet Jason, our guide, proved to be a bit challenging, despite Debbie’s good intentions and impeccable directions. Cote and I began to second-guess our location. We were surrounded by trees, the dirt roads were rutted, the area was deserted. In fact, the only person we saw was a petite, dark-haired woman who was leaning on the outside of her red Volvo, where the road forked and split in two. Cote and I passed her by, and wondered what in the world she was doing out here all alone. We drove a bit farther, but the one-lane track we had veered off on, soon became impassable. We turned the car around and headed back to the split, and the woman who waited there. Maybe she could point us in the right direction.
Her name was Jenny, and she told us she too was there to meet Jason. After some quick introductions, we relaxed into our surroundings and started to share details about who we were and why we were all here. Cote and I discovered that Jenny was a single businesswoman, on vacation from Los Angeles. She claimed to not be the “outdoorsy” type, yet every summer she hits the open road, alone in her car, to explore new places and seek out new adventures. She spends her days hiking, and her nights sleeping in her car, and although she has rock-climbed 5 or 6 times in the past, she has never scaled a tree. (But has always wanted to try.)
Cote and Jenny hit it off immediately. And I was so impressed. I watched as my 18-year-old daughter engaged a complete stranger in conversation that would not end until some 24 hours later. Jenny was a woman about 15 years older than Cote, from a totally different background and place. Yet, as Jenny shared details about her life, her philosophies, her goals, I could tell Cote was gaining wisdom and courage and a deeper sense of her own self-confidence. All of this from a woman who just happened to decide to climb a tree the same day we did.
About twenty minutes later, Jason arrived. He pulled up in a very old, very used car, and apologized profusely for being late. Car troubles, he explained. Last minute and unexpected. It was probably a good thing Jason began rushing around from the moment he stepped out of his vehicle, for if he hadn’t I’m sure the look on our three faces would have betrayed our every thought. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting our guide to look like, but I know Jason’s appearance caught me more than just a bit off-guard. His shoulder-length blond hair was pulled back in a low pony-tail and he was sporting a 3-day beard. His clothes looked as if he had slept in them, possibly more than just one night. He had all the makings of being a throw-back hippie from the sixties, though he had to be only in his early to mid thirties. To be honest, these first impressions made me a bit nervous. I found myself questioning his capabilities and wondering what in the world I had gotten us into.
As soon as he started to speak, however, I realized just how wrong first impressions can be, and I was ashamed of myself for judging so quickly. Jason talked about being an arborist for 14 years, about perfecting his trade and how he fell in love with trees. He spoke about our safety, about taking precautions, and how PTCI only provides the best in climbing gear. This man was totally competent, totally capable. His passion for nature was pure and contagious, his knowledge about his craft was comforting and confidence-building. From the battered trunk of his car, he pulled out all our supplies……harnesses and rope, helmets and sleeping bags, water bottles and safety latches. He spoke of what to expect from our climb and what it would take to make it to the top. Then he led us on a short hike through the forest to the mighty Three Musketeers.
The trio of Douglas firs grew within inches of each other. They were not particularly big around, but they stood strong and tall. The one we would climb was 257 foot high. We craned our necks upward, following ropes that hung down the sides of the trunks but disappeared gently into the canopies above. The tops were out of sight. Our lesson on climbing was quick and not too detailed. Jason went over the basics with us, about how the ropes could hold thousands of pounds (what was that supposed to mean?) and our latches were safety-proof. We could only climb up, we need not worry about sliding (falling?) back down. The mechanical teeth biting into the rope would prevent us from doing so. We could sit in our harnesses and relax at any time, but we had to stand and push ourselves up in the foot-straps in order to inch our way skyward. We wouldn’t fully understand these instructions, nor the coordination it took, however, until we were strapped in and forced to climb. Live and learn. Trial and error. We would be safe, but until we stepped in, latched on, and started up, there was not much else to say.We donned our helmets, our harnesses, and clipped on to our ropes. Water bottles dangled from our belt loops, as we pushed off one by one from the forest floor. Jenny first, then Cote, then me. It was awkward at first, trying to get the hang of what to do. We bobbled, we wobbled. But before long our feet and hands began to move in steady rhythm, and we hoisted ourselves up inch by inch, with slow methodical movements. At about 50 feet, I looked back down and saw Jason beginning his own ascent. Clipped to his belt harness was all our night-time gear, sleeping bags, pillows and three tree-boats. Jenny was only staying for the daytime climb, she wasn’t planning on spending the night, so she wouldn’t be needing a bed to sleep in. She had told us about her long drive back to Los Angeles (13 hours), and how she needed to be at work bright and early Monday morning. She would have to bid us goodbye right after dinner.
My version included Jason, who by now had piqued my interest. Here was a man who climbed trees for a living, who had a knowledge and a love for nature that seemed to know no bounds. On any day of the week, he could see the world from an entirely different view. How did this change him as a person? How did this alter his vision? Did he resent or welcome outsiders to his palace in the sky, and how did he cope with caring for an environment so many others disregarded on a daily basis? I felt like a reporter, digging for a story, but Jason answered my questions as we climbed with patience and a passion for what he does. His greatest love is to bring children up into the canopies, he told me, school kids from the inner city. “Black tops to tree tops,” he called it. His goal was to foster a love for nature in the next generation and to help these kids discover their own inner strengths while doing so. Watching them climb, even those who think they can’t because of physical limitations or because they might think themselves to be too over-weight, was the greatest joy for Jason. As these kids accomplished personal goals they originally thought were out of reach, as they climbed to new heights and surpassed their own expectations, he saw self-confidence grow, self-esteem soar. There was nothing else like it in the world for him. At 120 feet, Jason stopped to hook up our treeboats, so that they could be secured in the light of day and be ready for us that evening. “Keep climbing. I’ll meet you all at the top when I’m done."
I continued on, alone now, up the side of this great tree. The higher I went, the more it seemed everything else below me just melted away. The noise, the crazy roads, the rush of life. All that remained were the trees, their simple beauty, their quiet dignity, their noble presence. I kept inching upward, stopping every so often to relax into my harness and take in the view peeking out between the branches. Here’s what surprised me the most……I was never afraid. Not even for a minute. Back when Cote and I were exploring the Rockies, I remember how dizzy I felt whenever we would walk out to the edge of a particular view and look down. Or how nervous I would be driving with no guardrails along the sides of the mountains, high up in the national park. It gave me chills at times, and back then I kept thinking, "How am I ever going to climb a tree? How am I going to strap on to just a rope, climb up 250 feet, and open my eyes?"
Now, here I was doing just that. With absolutely no fear. On the contrary, all I felt was peace and serenity. The sky was the limit, the tree was my anchor, the beauty of creation surrounding me like a protective blanket. I felt safe, and whole, and free all at the same time. We often go through life describing beautiful images, incredible experiences, as taking our breath away, and I thought this was how it would be when I finally found myself sitting in the topmost branches of these super tall trees. But it wasn’t. To say the view was breath-taking, would be almost the opposite of what it felt like for me, the opposite of what I experienced. Instead, when I was intertwined with the limbs, when I was cradled inside these outstretched arms, it was as if I found myself truly breathing for the very first time ever. With the trees surrounding me, supporting my every movement, I breathed deep, really deep, clear down to my soul. The air was pure, and fresh, and clean. It was almost as if I had been living in an oxygen-deprived room all my life, and a door was suddenly thrown open. Nestled high within the trees, was where I could finally breathe for real, breathe on purpose, and breathe completely . I became one……as the trees around me, beneath me, beside me, and spread out before me…..became many.
We ate lunch at 230 feet, the highest point we would climb. When I caught up with Cote and Jenny, they were still chatting away, learning the finer details of each other’s lives. Seeing Cote perched casually and comfortably on the branch overhead, warmed my heart. I could tell she was enjoying this adventure as much as I was. We opened our brown bags, and discovered hearty whole-wheat turkey sandwiches with avocado and sprouts, all-natural potato chips, and an apple....all packed by Debbie, herself, who just happens to be, by the way, Jason's wife. It was strange yet peaceful to be eating so high up in the air, tucked against the trunk of a tree, with a view spanning before me as far as I could see. I felt like an eagle, come home to its nest. It wasn’t long before Jason joined us. He asked us how we were all doing, what we all thought, while he sat on his own branch and ate his lunch. Then it was time for our lesson in getting back down, which was going to be a whole lot easier, he said, than coming up.
One by one, Jason switched our mechanisms from ascenders to descenders. Even during this quick change-over, we were never “unlatched” completely from the safety of our ropes. Jason made sure we were attached to secondary ropes during the cross-over. The descender mechanism was basically a pull-lever. Pull it down, and you went down, gravity did all the work for you. Stop pulling, and you stopped instantly, wherever, whenever you wanted. If you pulled too hard, a safety catch would kick in and shut the gear down, so there was never any worry about going too fast. But who would want to? There was still so much to take in. From the smallest of lichens growing on bark, to the soft-covered moss dripping like molasses from branches. The canopies were at our fingertips. They were full and green, and waiting to be explored and appreciated. We took our time coming down, and eventually passed our treeboats as we did, the place where we would be spending the night. They looked comfortable enough, each one slung from between the mighty trunk to an outstretched branch. After dinner, we would head back up at dusk to sleep beneath the stars and our naturally-grown blankets of green.
Around 4pm we finally touched down, we returned to our roots, if you will. It felt weird at first to be standing on solid earth again, very heavy, our legs like dead weight. We dropped our belts, shook off our helmets, and stretched our own limbs. We had an hour and a half before Debbie was to arrive with dinner, (could this day get any better?), so Jason took us on a hike through the Oregon forest to find a hidden stream. This place was amazing. The ferns carpeting the forest floor were lush and dense, the soil we walked upon was dark and earthy, the trees towering over us were powerful and protective.We found the stream, spent some time by the trickling water, and then headed back to camp.
Debbie was there waiting for us, with a spread that was a feast to our eyes and growling stomachs. Pasta with homemade sauce, fresh salad straight from her garden, and warm bread. For dessert there was Marianne-Berry Pie, kind of a cross between raspberry and blueberry, a fruit native to their Oregon area. It was all absolutely delicious, we ate our fill and then some. But one of the best treats of the evening was to finally meet Debbie in person. We had spoken several times on the phone and shared info by email, but I was hoping we would have the chance to thank her in person for all her help in setting up this incredible adventure. Our time together over dinner was relaxing and enjoyable. Debbie is a gentle soul, with a constant smile. She was as warm and inviting and natural as the very trees that circled around us. Later on, Cote and I agreed she was just about the sweetest woman we both had ever met.