Pilgrimage to Uncivilization
Me and Little Red met Jan and Seb at The Gathering this spring and were lucky enough to hang out with them again at Freyfest in August. Much mischief and mead was involved (they seem to follow in my wake…). Since then Little Red (aka the hot Asian schoolteacher in our local pagan community) got married to her love and Jan and Seb got engaged. Jan is a survival-skill/outdoors type with James Dean’s hair and looks, dressing all in black, and quick with a joke. Seb is part woodsy shaman and part sexy punk, shy but full of mischief. They both work for a wilderness school in Washington and invited us down for the thanksgiving weekend to visit and to hike to the Goldmyer Hot Springs with them. Of course we said yes and drove across the border last Friday, excited for adventure with a sunny forecast ahead of us. The GPS tried to kill us by leading us into a stone quarry instead of Jan and Seb’s home, but eventually we found it outside a small town in a beautiful cedar and fir forest behind farming country.
Little Red and I were a bit early and so we explored the yard with its ancient blackthorn and apple trees, grove of hazels with a fire pit in the centre, fearless grazing deer, and vines ripe with juicy blackberries. We went for a walk down the road into the woods admiring the green of the tall trees and moss and ferns. We stumbled upon an old Dodge truck moss-covered and rotting, being swallowed by the forest. It was post-apocalyptic — like we’d stumbled upon the end of civilization and the forest had eaten all we knew.
When walking back to the house I heard a whistle unlike any bird’s, repeated it back, and heard it again. It was Jan and Seb walking out of the woods from the other direction. We said our hellos and Seb showed us a freshly dead small snowshoe hare she’d just found in the forest. She will keep the eyes, the skull, and its soft fur.
Into their little cabin we went, with its stained glass windows and stacks of firewood lining the front. The walls are wood and covered with art, the kitchen cozy and inviting, the living room and its little iron stove filled with books and bones and hidden shrines of skulls and feathers. The kitchen pantry is cleverly fitted with shelves under the stairs full of homemade canned goods, tinctures, blackberry vodka, and herbal vinegars. Seb is an amazing artist and showed us her studio full of paintings, illustrations, found object art, block prints, and stone and wood carvings.
Fellow bone collectors, I was treated to seeing their collection of skulls and bones, neatly cleaned and well-loved. After a delicious dinner we circled in the living room while Jan lit a fire in the stove and we talked of bones, spirits, magic, mysticism, shamanism, witchcraft, dreams, and ghosts while drinking delicious local mead and Seb’s rich blackberry vodka.
As we talked, the sun set and the moon rose behind the tall fir trees. We stood on the porch and the smoke of Seb’s organic tobacco curled up into the night sky like an offering to the stars. Coyotes howled and yipped in the distance answered angrily by territorial farm dogs. A male barred owl nearby asked us “who cooks for you”? We stayed up late into the night philosophising, telling stories, and laughing – soothed to sleep by the warmth of the fire.
In the morning there was bacon and tea and packing the car. Jan drove the four of us out to the mountains, up a winding dirt road full of pot holes, and deep into a perfect Pacific Northwest rainforest for an hour and a half into a valley. Then we parked, loaded our gear upon our backs, and set off to hike the six-mile trail to the hot springs. We walked past rivers, waterfalls, giant trees, medicinal, magical, and poisonous plants in an untouched old growth forest. The only sign of civilization along the way was the dirt and stone road beneath our feet. Six miles is a long way by foot carrying camping gear. Our packs were heavy but our spirits were light.
As we walked, Seb and I told us all stories of native spirits who haunt the woods of the Pacific Northwest coast, of sasquatch-like creatures who protect teens and teach them lessons, of Monster Woman of the Woods who eats children, and of Old Man who tricks people into eating salmon that turns into rotting cedar in order to steal souls.
We finally made it to the crossroad where the trail narrowed, full of tree roots, and took us uphill to a little wood cabin nestled deep in the forest to check-in. We were greeted by a cheerful young woman who had us sign in for our reservation and told us about the hot springs and the non-profit’s dedication to a zero footprint mentality to protect the forest. We followed the trail down a bit further and set up our camp – so very happy to put our packs down for a good long while. At sunset we climbed up a steep trail armed with towels and flashlights and arrived at the hot springs in the dark. We were delighted to find the hot spring was actually a natural cave set into the wall of a rock face on the mountain – the water trickling down into two slightly cooler pools formed out of raw stones with a cold pool nearby. We all stripped off our clothes and climbed into the cave – both hot spring and sauna at the same time – lit only with two small candles.
It was otherworldly to float in that dark cave, misty with steam, smooth walls glowing from the candles and the water clearer than clear. At the very back was a wood bench to escape the hot waters. We gathered in the end of the cave and sang the Freddie Krueger song as softly and creepily as we could, hoping to scare the other bathers outside. When we became too hot, we moved outside the cave into one of the smaller pools and bathed in it, listening to the river below and admiring the stars above, surrounded by the black shadows of trees. We talked of life and love and ritual soaking up water and starlight until our skin shrivelled like raisins and we could take no more heat. Our sore backs, shoulders and legs wonderfully soothed, we headed back to our camp, ate fruit and meat and chocolate while sipping my cherry-cinnamon-vanilla brandy, and fell asleep to the sound of the river.
In the morning Little Red went back to the hot springs, Jan nursed his sore feet, and Seb and I went exploring by the river – her the rocky riverbed for quartz and pyrite and I the old growth forest behind it. I found ancient giants covered in mosses and fungi with thick roots like fingers digging into the earth. I saw devil’s club, fireweed, and pearly everlasting everywhere – still at peak harvest time despite it being October.
I found wild coltsfoot growing among the rocks by the river. Its leaves are smoked to heal the lungs or to see spirits and visions (it also makes an excellent cough syrup for winter colds). There was vanilla leaf everywhere (aka deer’s foot or sweet after death), especially lining the paths, making the forest smell sweet as well as keeping away insects. It smells the most when dried and campers often hang the leaves in their tents to fend off mosquitoes. Vanilla leaf can be hung in your closet or stuffed into sachets in your clothing drawers to keep away moths and is also excellent for sweetening incense and smoking blends. Use it in folk magic for love or as an aphrodisiac.
By our camp site was star-flowered false Solomon’s Seal – a small plant in the lily family whose roots were used by the local medicine men mixed with sweet flag roots to create plant spirit fetiches for their spells. The roots can be used medicinally like true Solomon’s Seal for colds and coughs, indigestion, arthritis, rheumatism, allergies, and insect bites. The berries are yellow and striped with red, usually three stripes, but the ones by our tents had six. They are edible, but not eaten, and make beautiful beads which are only temporary as the stripes fade with drying.
We packed up camp and headed back out at noon for the six-mile hike back to the car. Our sore muscles and heavy packs not deterring us one bit from laughing at each other’s stories and taking in the gorgeous scenery around us. Halfway back Seb discovered a whole dried American toad along the path. It had been squished by a mountain biker in a hurry — a symbol of our destruction of nature in our simultaneous attempt to grasp its untouched beauty.
We arrived back at the car with more glee than you can imagine at putting those heavy packs down once and for all. We rested, drank water, and then made the long drive back to Jan and Seb’s warm home for one more night of mead and blackberry vodka cozied up by the wood stove and falling asleep to coyote songs.
After more bacon and tea for brunch the next day, Little Red and I were sent home with lovely gifts of homemade raspberry-huckleberry jam, blackthorn sloe and blackberry jam, hand carved bone needles, and pieces of ebony and purple heart wood for me to carve. Jan gave me a lovely green hardback copy of Grimm’s fairy tales as he had two and knew how I love my stories. We said goodbye and headed North back to Canada Monday afternoon, reluctant to leave our wonderful new friends and their lovely cabin in the forest full of books and bones and herbs. Here I sit now in my own home with tea, surrounded by books and bones, smiling at the warm memories of mischief and mead with kin.