I've lived in Portland for little more than a year and a half and Forest Park and its beautiful trails have played an integral role in my experience from the very beginning. This backyard park has been a lush, fern-laden setting for friendships to grow, bonds to be solidified, ideas to emerge, and inspirations to develop. The trails of the great park were stoic witnesses to the undulations of my life and myriad others, the ups and downs of human lives and relationships, the continual ebb and flow. I met best friends on those footpaths and also, with tough emotions and a tight chest, shared a farewell run recently with one of those very characters -- through the same leaf strewn hills and valleys we'd always run -- on an appropriately solemn and dark, rain-drenched night. I watched the seasons change and the trails alter their characters, from dry to muddy, bare to draped with yellow leaves. I drew parallels with nature and life and love and the uncertainties of our individual evolution, reminded once again that everything changes and metamorphosis is painful yet necessary (and never, ever easy.)
When I had only just arrived in town, still without apartment or job, a couple friends and I went for a hike at Leif Erickson in the park. We strolled along the wide dirt road to the Wild Cherry Trail and began ascending the single-track up through the trees, as I marveled at my new surroundings, increasingly happy with the move I'd just made. Right at the intersection with the Wildwood Trail, I saw a tall, skinny runner in an orange jacket cruising along. At the same time we both glanced over at each other and did a double-take. We had emailed back and forth about trail running in Portland as I was preparing for the move but I had never met Yassine Diboun before. I recognized him from pictures and he recognized me too and we both spun around mid-trail to make the connection.
Forest Park had played matchmaker and soon Yassine and I were close friends. Soon many things had developed from that fortuitous meeting: a business was created, a lifelong friendship forged, careers changed, epic adventures had. Without question, there are many more epic adventures to come too of course. The Wildwood and many other trails were host to impromptu business meetings and brainstorming sessions, ideas bounced back and forth through the trees as we honed our visions. It was on long runs under Forest Park's lush canopy that we shared our passions and made the plans to make our dreams a reality in the form of Animal Athletics.
Nick Triolo was the other dear friend that I made when first arriving in Portland. Our first run together was up Angel's Rest and Devil's Rest in the Columbia Gorge. I was out of shape and was anxious to keep up but Nick's kind, generous, and humble nature was immediately apparent and so it helped put me at ease; I knew that I was fortunate to have made his acquaintance. Nick lived in a little studio space up in the hills, just a quarter mile from a meandering, serpentine tread that lead into the massive treescape of Forest Park, via the Cumberland Trail. Looking supremely effortless as he ran along, Nick showed me the trails and helped to familiarize me with it all, giving me tips, sharing his breadth of knowledge, drawing me deeper and making me feel welcomed into his world of mountain running, conscious , critical thought, and soulful exploration. Fortunately getting to know natural spaces and getting to know people can work hand-in-hand. Meeting Nick also had its myriad ripple effects on other areas of life: jobs, travel, romance, love, future trajectories … His wisdom -- and the pure, simple wisdom of foot travel that we shared -- has made deep, lasting impacts on my life and for that I am grateful.
The longer I have lived in Portland, the more my trail community has expanded. Last May, I moved to a shared house on NW Thurman with numerous trail heads just minutes out the door. A steady stream of bikers and runners flows past my house at all hours of the day. I'll be running with a personal training or coaching client or enjoying a little solo time on the feet in the evening and see will often numerous friends and acquaintances out enjoying the park too within the span of an hour. I've picked the dreaded, invasive ivy from the forest, alongside other trail runners and park-lovers and volunteers, and shared a tacit bond as fellow stewards of the land. It is community space, a playground for all ages, all sizes, a place to share our existence -- as friends, neighbors, and animals, as fellow hikers, runners, and bikers. It feels like a small town out there and I believe we have our common paths of rock, root and dirt to thank for that.
Luckily Yassine is in Portland to stay but Nick, much to our melancholy, departed just days ago, driving out of the grey toward the California sun, finally ready for a big change. Nick and I wanted to get in a run before he left, one last adventure before he set off. We talked about making it out to the Gorge, to hit the Angel's Rest/Devil's Rest loop and really come full circle. Time ran short as is often the case; packing, obligations, farewell parties and last minute errands got in the way. It had to happen though, no matter what; we had to share the wild dance of foot travel again so it was back to the Forest Park for a quick hour plus in the rain, the evening before his departure. We parked on the shoulder where Wildwood crosses Germantown Road, the world plastered with large, bright damp leaves -- the loud pitter-patter of rain on the ground, the pavement, our jackets, and the hood of his car ("the Green Goblin.") Other vehicles were there, other folks enjoying the community space, sharing something sacred, going to church.
We set off north on the Wildwood into the dim light, ran strong to Newton Road and then bombed child-like down to the bottom, dancing over slick rocks and we neared the base of BPA Road. All the way back up, we ran along beside one another, fellow animals moving simply through time and space, breathing hot air into cold fog, through the chilly pin-point precipitation that came steadily down. Legs churned in unison and lungs worked dutifully … up, up, up. At trail junctions we stopped and stood and listened, talked, joked around and did push-ups, made stupid noises, reminisced. We spoke of how special the park and the trails are, how valuable and amazing it is to have them so close, how rich and amazing the community of similarly-passioned people, how fortunate it is to be a part of it all.
We knew for us that the Portland connection was only the beginning; the biggest adventures were yet to come. We could be confident in that. Other trails in other places -- some near, some far -- would bare witness to our future adventures, to life's endeavors still ahead. The Wildwood Trail and Forest Park's glorious network of footpaths could never be forgotten though; their permanent influence could never be erased.
Let's not forget how these trails bring us together, how intimately they can draw us in, how much they connect us -- human to human, human to nature, and so on. Lives can intersect in these woods and we are rarely able to foresee the results. We are overlapping beings, as we race along through the trees, rocks, roots, mud and fallen leaves, and we influence and affect one another constantly. The land and the trails inspire and inform us individually, and we, in turn, inspire and inform each other: to do amazing things, to attempt unthinkable feats, to change ourselves, to face our fears.
Next time you're on the Wildwood, or walking up Lower Macleay Trail along Balch Creek, don't forget to say thank you. Go spend some time on the trails in Forest Park and explore our urban wilderness, 'cause you never know when it will change your life.
Willie McBride is a native of Chicago, IL but has been living in and exploring the American West since 2000. He attended the Colorado College, majoring in English with a focus on Creative Writing, solidifying his love of writing and his need for mountains. An avid hiker, climber, and trail/ultramarathon runner he now resides in NW Portland, close by the trails of Forest Park. He started a personal/group training and coaching business called Animal Athletics (AnimalAthleticsPDX.com) with fellow ultra runner Yassine Diboun in spring of 2012 and the two provide top-notch services to aspiring outdoor athletes of all abilities.