Rabbi With Midlife Crisis Looks for Answers

Seeking Sinai on the Sawtooth Trail

Kurt Hoffman

By Niles Elliot Goldstein

Published October 13, 2012, issue of October 19, 2012.
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I found solace at a brew pub in nearby Parkdale. On many evenings I would sit on the back deck, drink beer, pet the dogs that roamed the grounds and watch the sun gradually sink behind Mount Hood. Those were the only moments when I had contact with other human beings, and I became friendly with a local woman who had grown up in the area. She was newly divorced herself, and we spoke about her own doubts and fears prior to making the decision to end her marriage, about the challenges of throwing in the towel and starting again from scratch.

The woman’s parents lived about half an hour east, on a small farm on the outskirts of The Dalles, and they were horse trainers by trade. She invited me to join her on a sunset ride the next afternoon, and I readily accepted. When I arrived at the farm, her father, grizzled and polite, was already saddling up the horses. Her mother asked me questions about living in New York, and confessed that she had never traveled outside Oregon. Their marriage seemed warm and solid; they’d been partners, both personally and professionally, for a very long time. It made me think about how my own marriage was on its last legs. As we rode our horses over brown hills and brush, and as deer and pheasants darted out of our path, I wondered why a comfortable partnership wasn’t enough for me. What was I seeking with such restlessness, and why?

Yet again, all I had were questions.

After almost two weeks away, I’d resolved nothing about the decisions that I knew awaited me back home but could no longer be pushed aside. What were my options? I could brood alone in the cabin, numb myself with booze or get outside and at least feel like I was part of a larger reality beyond my inner turmoil. On the morning before my return flight, I drove over the Bridge of the Gods, crossed the border into Washington and entered Gifford Pinchot National Forest, a wilderness area in the heart of the volcanic Cascade mountain range. I decided to hike up Sawtooth Trail, a former section of the famous Pacific Crest Trail that stretches to Canada from Mexico.

The arduous trail climbed up to the 5,400-foot summit in virtually a straight shot, and I was dripping with sweat 90 minutes later, when I finally broke through the tree line and reached the exposed but level ridge at the top of Sawtooth Mountain. The setting was spectacular. Wind howled over the summit; craggy boulders crammed the peak; any misstep would lead to a sheer fall of thousands of feet. From that uneasy perch, there was a 360-degree view of Mount St. Helens to the west, Mount Rainier to the north and Mount Hood to the south. While I couldn’t actually make it out, I sensed the Pacific Ocean as its waves muscled inexorably into the rugged coastline on one side of me; on the other, great rolling plains unraveled east as far as my eyes could see. I was just a speck, a bag of bones surrounded by an unfathomable enormity.

I began to cry. I’d never felt so starkly alive yet so profoundly lost at the same time. “What am I supposed to do?” I asked aloud. “What happens now?”


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