One of the great things about living in southeast Portland is that we are walking distance from a volcano. That sounds more impressive than it really is. My volcano is a little hill with a city park that sits atop and an old, beautiful neighborhood that lines the sides. At most the elevation gain is less than 500 feet. I do not know how many thousands of years it has been since it has expressed itself from its core. From the top there are amazing views of the surrounding neighborhoods, downtown, and at least two of the towering Cascade volcanoes. My little volcano must have been a welcoming place from which to watch the awe-inspiring and violent eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980.
I admit that it is just plain cool to live walking distance from a volcano. Moreover, my little volcano has so much more to offer than the cool factor.
I walk up to the top frequently. I like that I live at the foot, that I first have to walk to it, and then up it. It is just a little hill, but it is enough of a hill to give me something to look forward to as I begin my walk, and a sense of accomplishment as I reach the top. As I descend and leave the city park and walk through the neighborhood on the hill I get a sense of leaving a place having been somewhere for a visit, even though my whole walk takes only an hour.
My little volcano is alive. It lures me like an addiction. In the winter sometimes I embark early enough in the morning that there are still stars in the sky when I return home. I have walked through mud. I have walked in the ice, when the mud has frozen solid. I have walked through showers and arrived home so drenched all three of my layers have been permeated beneath my jacket. I have seen the sun cast its pink morning glow over Mt. Hood to the east. I have seen the moon, golden and round, softly illuminate the sleepy, blue west hills and downtown core. I have stood in bright sunshine looking over a thick blanket of fog that flows with the Willamette River, disguising all but the tallest buildings of downtown. I have watched dragonflies break from their migration to swim in the heat of the late summer sun. I have, at times, needed two flashlights to see the path in front of me in the darkness. I have walked to the top of my little volcano dozens, maybe hundreds of times and each trip is a different experience.
I am sure I have seen the spirit of a tree or two watching over me. Some with trunks three or four feet in diameter, they have been living in my neighborhood far longer than I can imagine. They protect me like a wise grandparent or village elder. One sunny day I noticed how much harder the trees have to work when the park is busy. There is so much more to watch out for. Fortunately, the trees have a vantage point to see it all from the ground as visitors pass by closely, and also from the top to see whole sections of the park and neighborhood at once. Still, they must be tired from working overtime at the end of the busy spring days.
The hill itself does not lay dormant, passively waiting for visitors to trod its ground. No, the hill invites its guests. It tickles my curiosity to wonder what the view from the top looks like each day. It presents a mirage of a minor challenge. The birds charm me onward as the daughters of Zeus in chorus. With each step forward the earth lifts me up. It pushes me higher. The soil keeps me steady on my feet. When I reach the top I know that it is only possible because of the hill, and I could not get there on my own accord.
My little volcano gives me time and space to clear my head. It lets me solve problems and encourages me to ask more questions. Sometimes I think the experience of my walks and all that my little volcano does for me is an analogy for any challenge in life: challenges are something to look forward to that can help me see a different view on the world and give me a sense of accomplishment. My volcano reminds me to focus simultaneously on the end goal and the view from the top, while also watching each step carefully on the path in front of me. Other times I think my volcano is an analogy for the way to make the most of life’s challenges: I should allow challenges to entice me, itch my curiosity, surround me, lift me up from the foundation, get as close as the running sap on the bark of the trees, and as distant as the tops of the Cascades and the stars, revisit them frequently to see something new each time, and be grateful for the gifts any challenges provide.
This type of thinking trivializes my little volcano. It is not a metaphor for anything. It is where I bring my challenges to reframe my thinking, find respite, discover new meaning, and ask myself, “and then?” It is the place I go when I am looking for a new perspective and a new level of insight. It is where I see problems through the lens of a dewdrop, and surrounded by recessed fog as it cuts through the trees, enlightened by the sun. My little volcano teases me in Socratic dialogue so that I can be a better thinker, a better researcher, a better teacher, a better citizen. It asks me the hard questions. It makes me see all that is possible.