Cairns, special places and people

Some places, some people, some dogs are simply special.

They make you smile, calm you, elicit a laugh just when you need it, make you feel welcome and valued. They heal wounds.

This morning I awoke at 4:00 am. My mind immediately started dwelling on all the stuff going on right now: preparing to move to Idaho, trying to give things away (a couch, an upright piano), dealing with the myriad of details that is life. With no hope of falling back to sleep, I got up and did a few chores as I waited for enough daylight to take Finn for a trail run. I briefly thought about running from home, on roads, to save time so I could tick more things of my impossibly long "to do" list. Then my inner protective voice said, "You need the forest." At 6:00 am, Finn and I headed off for a trail run.

An unusual cairn on Cougar Mountain
Over the past couple of weeks I've gone to the forest more frequently than usual. In part, I'm motivated by a sense of I'll miss these trails when I'm in Idaho so I should run them as much as possible now. Mostly, I need the trail time to diffuse my increasing stress. Moving is stressful; there's no getting around it. 

On one recent de-stressing run I noticed someone had built a small cairn - just three rocks - atop a tree strump right beside a trail on Cougar Mountain. I stopped to take some photos. The next time I ran that trail, a few days later, the cairn had been increased to five stones. I love cairns. They have a natural beauty, a stunning sense of balance. In addition to marking the way along a trail, they say, "I was here, and I loved being here so much, I took the time to create this monument." I built cairns to mark the places I left the girls ashes in Idaho. Cairns are a trail's way of hugging the wayfarer. You know someone else has been this way before; you're safe and among friends.

A few days later, the cairn was gone. It had been stormy, with strong winds; maybe a gust toppled the cairn. Whatever the cause, I was saddened to see it gone.

This morning's run started with my mind still churning with stressful things. Finn did his best to distract me, leaping and running with sheer delight to be in the forest. He started by dashing ahead, then running straight back to me, leaping right in front of me as if to say, "Awesome! Come on, let's go!" before dashing ahead again. He repeated this numerous times (a routine I refer to internally as "getting his ya ya's out") until finally we settled into our trail running rhythm with Finn leading the way, 20-30 feet ahead of me, waiting at intersections to see which way I point before forging on ahead.

After running companionably this way for a few of miles, I noticed Finn slowing ahead of me on the single track trail. Looking up, I saw why: a man several yards ahead was moving off the trail to allow us to go by. I then recognized him. "Don? How are you?!" 

Don is a fellow trail runner I've known for years, someone I see only on trails, but regularly enough to consider a friend. He's now retired and lives near Cougar Mountain. He loves the place as much as I do. He donated funds to the park so that a bench could be placed on Wilderness Peak in honor of his parents.

Recognizing me, Don says, "You're famous!" I realize he's referring to an article in the May issue of Seattle magazine about my book Growing Up Boeing. I blush and accept his congratulations. We start catching up, having not seen each other in several months. Finn sits patiently on the trail, but as Don and I keep chatting, Finn starts rolling in the ferns beside the trail, even picks up a stick, as if to say, "Quit talking and start running!" Finn is amazingly patient, for which I'm grateful.

Patient Finn.

Don's infectious, upbeat demeanor makes me forget the stresses I'd carried in my head when I started the run. Eventually we wrapped up our conversation by talking about writing down historic stories worth preserving, which I'd endeavored to do with my book. Finally saying goodbye, each taking a few steps along our separate directions, Don brings his hands together in front of his chest and nods his head with reverence, saying "Your Dad is happy for you." 

I stop, overwhelmed by emotion. You see, just three days after my father passed away in 2009, I went into the forest at Tiger Mountain for some peace and solitude. All I wanted to do was go uphill, work my muscles hard to try to assuage the grief. Just as I was about to turn back toward the car, I saw Don coming down the trail. Smiling and happy - his usual demeanor - I put on a weak smile and said hello as Don gave me a hug. "I was at a party last week," Don said, "and someone mentioned your father. He was saying what an icon in aviation he was." I was stunned; I hadn't said anything to Don about my father's passing, and he had no reason to know of it, yet here he was mentioning him. Karma. After a short internal debate, I decided to share with Don that my father had died. He gave me another hug and told me how sorry he was. I asked if Finn and I could follow him down the trail, and Don readily agreed. It was cathartic, to run with Don, talking about my father in a way that was celebratory, not sad. It was a kindness I've never forgotten.

Those memories flashed through my brain this morning. "I think you're right, Don," I said. "Do you remember that run on Tiger, shortly after my father died?" I added, while mimicking his gesture, putting my hands together in front of my chest and nodding a gesture of gratitude.

"Yes! I've shared that with many people!" Don replied. Unspoken words of understanding - the grief of losing a beloved parent - passed between us.

It made me happy to know that Don, too, felt strongly about that impromptu shared experience on Tiger Mountain years ago.

Forests. They're my happy place, where I go for solitude, sanctuary, peace and healing. My dogs have shared that sense of place with me. And now, I realize, some of my friends do as well. I didn't realize it when I drove to Cougar this morning, but bumping into Don on the trails was just what I needed.