Content Warning: Suicide
Tell me what did you learn from the Tillamook burn,
Or the Fourth of July?
We’re all gonna die
Sufjan Stevens: “Fourth of July”
Several years ago, I closed my hand in a heavy door and tiny-fractured some of my fingers. When it happened, my hand turned black and I couldn’t feel anything. I stared at my hand for minutes, feeling no pain, until I just passed out instead. I never really felt the appropriate amount of pain, just nausea and numbness. Eventually, I had to drain the blood out of my fingernails with a hot needle because I was feeling pressure higher up in my arm as a result of it.
I could try to write a dramatic account of how I found out about this tragedy, but the reality of my feelings at the time was as incongruously flat and unsatisfying as my reaction to my broken fingers. While I was buying a permit for a short backpacking trip in a lesser-known area near St. Helens, Wade called me to tell me that our friend had killed himself. Wade was away at a wedding, and our friend, who we met in college and who also moved to Seattle after, had unexpectedly not shown up for the festivities. It was a total surprise to me.
I didn’t talk to Wade much then; I hung up and wrestled with the problem of if and how to tell a mutual friend who I was worried would otherwise find out at work the next day. I eventually called him and struggled to find the right euphemisms, failed to give the situation enough gravity. Wade said, “just go over to his house and give him a hug,” but as a solitary griever myself, that felt wrong. Also, it was the Fourth of July. He, and everyone else, was probably celebrating. I felt impossibly lonely, but also uninterested in talking to anyone.
Still, as I packed our bags as a way to distract myself from the now inappropriate-feeling party upstairs, I worried I was doing something wrong. I worried he needed something else from me, that I should be crying. I dreamt that someone else had died instead and I had somehow become confused and unknowingly spread terrible falsehoods. I packed some Clif bars, and I packed my to-do list of emotional processing with them. When we are out there, I thought, I’ll probably feel the right things.
We were going to hike a little loop that included Mount Margaret. We would be camping just one night, and I had a permit for a relatively unused campsite halfway through. Wade came back and we immediately left for the trip. I’d been listening to the eerily appropriate song “Fourth of July” on repeat because without fail, I would tear up a bit whenever he got to the line “did you get enough love, my little dove?” I played it again and tried not to feel guilty as we drove into the area surrounding St. Helens, with its post-eruption landscape. I thought about the strange reference to the Tillamook burn in the song as I looked at these singed trees.
The first part of our hike really drove home the fact that the landscape was recovering. Though there weren’t any older trees, the underbrush was coming back with a vengeance. The trail wasn’t very popular and it was early in the season, so the way was totally inundated with aggressively bright green thorny plants. I was in shorts, and I had a lot of fun picking my way through them even though my legs acquired a roadmap of scrapes. It was definitely distracting us from our internal confusion, and we hid in the brush and giggled as we found cute faces in some of the more unusual plants. As we continued on a slow ascent toward Obscurity Lake, it got hotter and less vegetated. The soil was all ash, and as we walked the trail shifted and crumbled. The ash made our mouths and lungs feel weird and turned our backpacks grey. We stopped at a couple of the lakes and talked at length about the strangely geometric ruined forests. All of the damaged and fallen trees on the opposite slopes still formed perfect vector maps of the lava flow in many places, even all these decades later. Logs were piled up in the lakes. We saw one other group of hikers all day.
After the lakes the trail got hard to follow because of snowfields, which I hadn’t really expected. I didn’t have any traction with me, so I slipped on a steepish one and was disproportionately upset. Something that wouldn’t normally have bothered me at all seemed to be too much in my fragile emotional state. Both of us seemed to lose patience much more quickly with being lost because we just didn’t have any emotional bandwidth left. We never actually found our campsite, and it was probably buried in snow anyway, so we camped right before Mt. Margaret on a patch of snow next to some goat footprints.
We slept well, and the next day we were in high spirits because the views of surrounding mountains were spectacular, as were the wildflowers. We stared at more lakes, and we sang bluegrass songs poorly. We finally started to talk about what had happened more, that there was probably nothing we could have done, that our friend had been hard to make plans with recently and it wasn’t our fault. “This trip is probably exactly what we should have done now,” he said, and I agreed. I didn’t know what else I could have pulled myself together to do other than hike and I’d been an emotional wreck at work for the one day in between (take time off for bereavement, everyone).
The views were gone when we hopped up to the summits of Margaret and Coldwater, but we hung out in the clouds there for a while. We started back on the most well-used part of our route afterwards, on the other side of the same lake as the first leg. Suddenly, getting lost was impossible because there were all sorts of signs denoting the trails! The trip had been a little slower than I expected the day before because of the trail conditions, but now we had tons of extra time to get to the car. We came up to a man lying underneath a tree, dressed all in camo with a bulky pack.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“I’m out of water, and my piece of shit son told me the wrong way to go. It’s so hot, if I don’t get back to the truck really soon, I’m gonna use this gun to shoot myself.” He gestured toward his hip.
I felt like time started going at the wrong speed or something for a moment after his joke, which was not only in poor taste, but also could have won an award for poor timing. In my shock, I awkwardly gave him my last half liter of water. Wade offered to give him a ride back to the other trailhead if he needed, which was the right thing to do even if I was upset about having to hike with this guy.
He was nice enough, and talked to us about hunting and sustainability and some of his favorite conspiracy theories. When we got to his son, he gave us some grapes. It was still pretty early, so we stopped at some viewpoints on the way home to look at Helens from where tourists see it by car. It really never stops looking alien. I felt a little less like I was hovering two inches above the ground after the trip, but it would be a lie to say I had recovered from feeling spaced-out and unbalanced. When we got back into service, I got curious and looked at my last texts with the deceased:
Me: We should go hiking sometime once you’re done with that! Let me know when.
Him: I would like that.