Making Magic 

If you plan ahead, is it still spontaneous?

Even before we started up the hill, Seanna was slightly confused. I had tried to tell her that it's a personal thing, I'll know it when it happens. Besides, she gets a nice hike today and a photo credit in seven months.

She's a gamer, though, so she doesn't ask too many questions. She and I have hiked all over the Cascades together. The first time we met it was 13 miles through old-growth noble fir to a view of five snow-capped volcanoes. At other times, it was a salmon stream during the spawn or a quick getaway to a 4,000-acre forest in the middle of Portland.

On this day, it was a three-mile climb to a mountaintop meadow 3,000 feet above the Columbia River. But this wasn't just a hike; we could do that anytime. This was a quest.

We'd both been to the meadow before, and we would come again. But on this day, I was feeding an urge that's been with me for more than 15 years now.

Back in 1988, I went on a guided climb of the Grand Teton in Wyoming. When we got to the summit, a climber pulled out a sign that said "Merry Christmas" and had his picture taken with it. This was one of the coolest ideas I'd ever encountered -- and the setting of a hook I'm still carrying around in my mouth.

Over the years, there have been obvious Christmas Card Moments, and occasional Backup Moments, but the idea is that when a Moment happens, I'll know it. This can be awkward, though, as more friends learn of the tradition, because they want to be involved: "Hey," they say as we look out over the ocean or some other nice view, "this would make a good Christmas card picture!" But it's an intensely personal thing for me. I have to feel the Moment.

Well, there's another category of these Moments: the Planned Moments. Sometimes I start the year with an idea in mind, so I make plans to create the Moment. Gather all the kids in the neighborhood, wait for the trip to the Grand Canyon, score good seats for a Grateful Dead show, or take the Santa hat on your backpacking trip.

But there's always a nagging question: If you plan it out, is it still magic? And what happens if the Moment is just a moment? Will the lack of magic somehow show up in the picture?

All these thoughts were kicking around in my head as Seanna and I trudged up Dog Mountain -- and when you're gaining 1,000 feet every mile, you have plenty of time to think. Dog Mountain is a piece of work, one of the steeper hikes in the Columbia River gorge, but it is, at a certain time of the year, reliably magical.

The gorge, 4,000 feet deep in places, is a transition zone from desert in the east to rainforest in the west, and in spring it's a border between winter and summer. The eastern end greens up in March, and the wildflowers begin to bloom. There are more than 700 species of flowers in the gorge, and the wave of color moves slowly westward and up the hills. The absolute peak of flower sublimity, the most stupefying Flower Moment of them all, the annual, guaranteed experience of grown adults frolicking like hobbits, is about the second week of May on the summit of Dog Mountain.

It's a mile-long, steep meadow more than a half-mile above the Columbia. Across the river is 5,000-foot Mount Defiance, and just behind that is 11,000-foot Mount Hood, which in May is still draped in snow. But this meadow, this ridiculous meadow at the top of Dog Mountain, is an explosion of flowers. The main player is balsamroot, a foot-tall sunflower. In the second week of May on Dog Mountain, there's a balsamroot, with four or five big beaming yellow blooms, in every square foot of that meadow. It's a soothing sea of yellow. It's so beautiful that, if you went there every year for the rest of your life, you'd still stand there like a fool and say, "My God, this is beautiful! Look at it!"

So that's what Seanna and I were headed for. We both knew it. I was carrying my doubts, to be sure: What if the picture couldn't capture it, what if the clouds came in, what if it doesn't feel like the Moment, what if, what if, what if

Well, there are no what-if's in May on Dog Mountain. There's just a whole lot of magic and, in my case, a Santa hat and a friend with a camera -- and then seven long months of waiting to share the magic with friends and family. •

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