I’ve been fascinated by doorways since I was a child, so finding myself in a placed called “Portal” doesn’t come as any surprise.
I was the kid that wanted to fall into Alice in Wonderland’s Rabbit Hole, climb behind the dresser in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and was first in line to get on the Magic Trolly in Mr. Roger’s neighbourhood. I just have a thing for magical lands, and it seems they all have secret entrances and a certain way of looking at things, in order to gain passage.
Most places I’ve been drawn to live require some kind of passage.
Prince Edward County has three bridges; Salt Spring island a ferry. Tofino has a treacherous pass with steep cliffs, harrowing turns and falling rocks. Last year, when I was called to Cape Breton, I came to refer to The Causeway – the bridge that takes you to Cape Breton Island- as The Portal.
When I became the new caretaker of a piece of land there, I began noticing doorways in the forest and fields. I joked with visitors that they needed to relax their eyes to see them, but they were there. If you squint too much, it’s harder. The old driveway is a portal, transporting one from the upper meadow to the blackberry patch. I can’t explain it, but the places on either side of that driveway- are different. You can feel it. They may not be as obvious as a town called Portal, but they trans-port, none-the-less.
Portal, Arizona is definitely a doorway. Geographically, it’s the east entrance to the Chiricahua Mountains, and sits at the entrance to Cave Creek Canyon. There is a powerful stream pouring from the very top of a mountain, feeding a robust creek that cuts its way through the National Forest. The Arizona Sky Village group is also in Portal; a group of astronomers regularly gazing through it’s dark skies into a vast and mysterious universe.
It is home to the Southwestern Research Station, which hosts biologists, botanists, birders and bat experts from all around the world. That’s because Portal is also the gateway into a fascinatingly diverse ecosystem. Finally (although I’m sure this is not a definitive list) it is on the border of New Mexico and close to the Mexican border. That’s a lot of doorways.
I had zero knowledge of Portal on arrival. Someone, somewhere along my journey had simply said, “Have you been to Portal yet?”
The hair on my arm stood up (this always means something is a… foot) and the yet suggested it was impending and essential. I always pay attention to this combination.
I arrive, and park across from what I felt was “town” – the cafe, supply store and lodge office all-in-one. I have no expectation that it was anything more than this, and I knew right away it was all I needed. I feel giddy.
I go inside, and collect all the information I need starting with a map with all the camping options in the park up the road. I’d lost cell service many miles ago, so hadn’t been able to research. Turns out there is an entire National Forest full of options.
I also collect a wifi password, a menu, and notice a patio for Pippa. I see a stage for entertainment, and the walls are covered with licence plates. I enjoy a cold drink on the patio while I soak it all in. I feel accompanied by old friends and new friends, all at the same time.
As for new friends, one arrives immediately along the winding mountain road to the National Forest. That’s where I happened upon a leprechaun hitch-hiking. Don’t ask me how I know he is a leprechaun, I just do. These things just seem so obvious sometimes.
Despite having very long legs, he was able to quickly fold himself into the back of the van, where Pippa licked him enthusiastically. She had never tasted leprechaun before and clearly thought he was delicious.
He was working, he said, at the research centre a handful of miles up the road, and his car was broken down. Sure it was, I thought.
He talked enthusiastically about owls as we drove, and Pippa continued to dine on him. I learned there are 22 species of owls in this canyon. Many rare. He suddenly asked I stop the van, and before I knew it, he had unfolded himself from the back and was beckoning me to a small pile of rocks at the side of the road. A cairn, I do believe they are called. A marker.
“That’s how you know they are here,” he whispers, pointing up to a beautiful white tree, with three perfect holes in it. “That’s where the Whiskered Screech Owl nests.”
I’d never heard of a the rare Whiskered Screech Owl and all I can picture is The Lorax.
While I was laughing to myself at this image of the actual Lorax popping out of one of the holes, he notices my t-shirt, which happens to say “Owl you need is Love.”
This doesn’t surprise the magical being, who simply notes out loud that I must be an owl person too. I stare into the little holes and think of Fred Penner, a children’s singer from my memory bank, who began each show by jumping out of a hole in a log, with his guitar, to sing to me. Another portal.
The owls aren’t in at the moment, but he suggests I look each time I pass. I laugh out loud this time, realizing there is actually room for all three of them in this tree- The Lorax, Fred and the two owls.
Once back in the van, I ask if he knows about dispersed camping; knowing that of course he knows… and of course, he knows, and takes me right to it. He also tells me I’m welcome to join the group at the research station for dinner, with notice, for a small cost, any night.
Apparently there are other owl people there. And bat-people. And ant-people. And bird people galore. Of course I will.
Before I can blink, he is gone up the road, choosing to walk the now-shorter distance to wherever it is magical people go when the sun goes down. I want to say he was whistling as he left, but sometimes my imagination adds things. Maybe he was just humming. I also notice I have the Lucky Charms jingle stuck in my head. I try to remember. Is it good luck to “catch” a Leprechaun? Does it count if he is hitch-hiking?
Suddenly Pippa and I are alone at the campsite. No sound but the rush of the creek beside the van. Pine and Oak trees tower around us. Pippa shakes off our encounter, which is dog-speak for “phew!”
We go for a short evening walk and discover a beautiful waterfall five minutes up the road.
I sit beside them. I think I might have even talked to myself, which I sometimes do when I’m in awe. Or have just been sucked through a portal. It solidifies things, to say the words out loud. First this happened… and then this… then this…
The evening light catches little golden particles in the air between the trees, and I accept the sprinkling of fairy dust. First a rabbit’s foot, now a Leprechaun.
Portal, indeed. Magically delicious.