I had the good fortune of revisiting Rebecca Solnit’s essay “Open Door” upon attending Signal Fire’s second-ever event in a monthly series called Reading In Place. “Open Door” is contained in a book called A Field Guide to Getting Lost, a devotional hymn celebrating the ways we constantly lose and find ourselves physically, emotionally, spiritually, and artistically. Many gorgeous stories are woven together within “Open Door”, but I found myself continuously returning to this passage:
Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go.
In a way, these words summarize the entire message of the essay. They remind us to welcome life’s mysteries and possibilities as we navigate our own unique path on this planet. With these ideas reverberating in our heads, eight of us piled into two cars and headed to Mt. Hood for Reading in Place, an adventure concocted by Signal Fire, a residency program dedicated to artistic creation and the natural world.
Two dynamic people co-founded Signal Fire, and they happen to be married to one another. The passionate Amy Harwood is an advocate and activist for forestland conservation. She has served as the Program Director for Bark, an organization devoted to protecting Mt. Hood National Forest. Ryan Pierce, who exudes a Zen-like aura, is an artist whose work has been exhibited both nationally and internationally. Each summer Signal Fire leads artists into the wilderness to “instill self-reliance, catalyze creative energy, and invite interdisciplinary collaboration.” This year there are seven residency programs in which artists are participating. If this sounds like a box of creative cookies you would like to devour, you can find out more about Signal Fire’s programing and how to apply here.
One of their programs, Reading in Place, is part book club and part wilderness adventure. For each Reading in Place excursion, a Signal Fire alumni, board member, or visiting artist chooses a piece of writing for participants to read before embarking on a day hike together. Author Justin Hocking, whose memoir “The Great Floodgates of the Wonderland” won the 2015 Oregon Book Award for creative non-fiction, selected the essay “Open Door” during the event I attended.
On the day of the hike, eight of us met at Alberta Park and drove to a little-known part of Mt. Hood National Forest. Before we started our journey, Justin set the tone for the day by asking us to reflect on a time when we felt lost in our lives and to consider sharing thoughts on the subject during our lunch-time discussion. Then he shared the first half of a lively story about a student getting lost in a remote part of Colorado when he worked as an outdoor educator. He promised to finish the story later in the day.
The hike itself was gorgeous. We started by climbing up, up, up through tall trees with the soft sound of running water accompanying us the entire way. Conversation along the trail was inspiring as topics ranged from Amy’s work on Mt. Hood trying to stop a pipeline from running through the forest to childhood homes and experiences. It was fascinating to learn tiny fragments about the lives of the diverse group of artists assembled together for the excursion.
About half way through the hike we stopped for lunch. The delicious picnic feast of veggies, cheeses, guacamole, bread, crackers, and cookies provided by Signal Fire impressed us. Justin opened lunchtime conversation by inviting anyone willing to share a tale of being lost in some aspect of life. What proceeded was an honest discussion about our experiences, paired with thoughts and reflections about “Open Door” all while sharing a meal in the middle of the forest.
After that, Justin asked if we were willing to experience a taste of being lost in the woods. All of us agreed, so he brought out the blindfolds! After being paired in groups of two, we took turns blindfolding the other person and spinning him or her around to create a feeling of disorientation. Then we led the other person through the woods to a log or rock that was explored with all the senses except sight. After that, we led the blindfolded individual back to where we started, removed the blindfold, and asked the person to navigate back to the spot. I was amazed that everyone in the group was able to find his or her way back to the mysterious point of exploration. It was a humbling experience trusting another person to guide me through the forest without the sense of sight.
After handing in our blindfolds, we were ready to trek back to our starting point. Amy was excited to take the route down a recently decommissioned logging road to see how the habitat restoration was coming along. She enthusiastically explained the benefits of allowing the road to return to a natural state. We took this less-travelled path and it proved to be more challenging than our hike into the woods. There were large potholes to traverse, undergrowth to jump over, and creeks to forge. It felt a little more like the uncharted territory that Solnit refers to in her writing, though in reality it was a road created by the logging industry.
At the end of the day we arrived safely back to our cars. We reminded Justin that he never finished his story of the lost student, and he told us the ending. I won’t spoil it as he said it has the potential to become a part of a future book, but the ending was optimistic. His tale was about being physically lost in the wilderness, but the message can also apply to many other aspects of life.
At the conclusion of our hike we piled into two cars for the trip back to Portland and a return to urban life. During the drive I thought about our journey together. The authentic people and interactions of Reading in Place provided a platform for a more pure form of interaction.