I finagled my way to a business trip to Seattle, and got to spend a bit of the weekend with my folks. The answer to the question “what do you want to do” is pretty much always “head up to the mountain”. Yesterday it rained nearly four inches in 24 hours – which is a lot. So the thing about mountains is that they’re pretty far away and hard to see when there’s a bunch of water between you and the mountains. But we headed up anyway.
The colors out here are glorious. The East Coast is suffering one of the most drab autumns I’ve ever seen – I’m not sure if the leaves are going to change colors at all or just fall off. But I don’t remember the leaves out west. I think this might be the first time in 20 years I’ve been in Mineral in October and the colors! They’re amazing! So mom and I drove up to Paradise today, where it snowed. We went part way up the West Side Road, but it was washed out prior to the closure. The passes were closed, so we couldn’t go through. Then we went Skate Creek, which had the most phenomenal colors but also had a minor road washout. We didn’t have the clearance to make it, so we turned around and got the colors a second glorious time. On our way back we heard Highway 7 was also closed due to a slide, but we couldn’t get up to see it.
Right now, there is only one bridge you can use to get out of Mineral. Happily, it’s a pretty tall one and also in the direction I need to go. The mountains are so beautiful, and the colors are so glorious. But we forgot how tenuous our connections can really be.
You can see all my pictures here. The colors were far, far more vibrant than my poor phone could capture!
When you tell people here in New England that you spent your summer vacation backpacking around an iconic mountain, they tend to think you’re hard core. I like to sprinkle in even more shocking details, saying things like “Yeah, nothing makes you appreciate civilization like a bathroom with walls and unlimited free toilet paper!” (I took a picture of each latrine on the mountain. I think I might make a gallery. You’re welcome.) It does feel impressive, from the land of cubicles.
However, when I was actually backpacking the Wonderland Trail – a 92 mile loop around Mt. Rainier that has so much elevation change it’s equivalent to summiting several times – I did not feel hardcore. Let’s start with the fact we were not doing the whole trail. Adam and I scored an amazing itinerary – absolutely my first choice. But it was only less than a third of the total length of the trail. People have run the Wonderland in the 40 hour range. I actually know some of these lunatics personally. Adam and I were on a pace for maybe a 13 – 14 day Wonderland circumnavigation. We’d stop on the trail and meet someone and they’d ask where we came from and were going. They’d give us a look, and lay out an itinerary often twice the length of ours. Any many of them WERE doing the whole trail.
Two particular meetings come to mind: the three young, map-challenged men we met outside of Mystic Lake around noon who thought they were going to Fire Creek (20 miles and 10,000 ft of elevation change). They weren’t running, so there was no way that they were going to make it. Then there was the dad with his two daughters who were doing the whole trail. The young women were having trouble with their boots, and had done 20 miles, with packs, in flipflops. We handed over our blister packs since our feet were holding up fine and they were in dire straights. These things conspire to make you feel like you’re doing the tourist edition of the trail.
Our choice was a good one, however. Adam and I had enough time to linger in some of the loveliest places in the world. We could stop and stare. We could rise when rested, and rest when weary. Our longest day was 10 miles. Our final day out was a mere 2 miles, which eager feet ate up. We never once raced to our goal with nervous eyes measuring the ever decreasing distance between horizon and sun.
The itinerary was this:
Day 1: Sunrise to Berkely Park 2.3 miles
Day 2: Berkely Park to Mystic Lake 10 miles
Day 3: Mystic Lake to Cataract Valley 7 miles
Day 4: Cataract Valley to Eagle’s Roost 5 miles
Day 5: Eagle’s Roost to Mowich Lake (out) 2 miles
Why do I love this? We could have gone to Ashland for the Shakespeare festival, and stayed in fine accommodations with amazing food. (A fact Adam reminded me of not a few times.) We went through considerable expense and difficulty in order to walk 26 miles up and down the side of a mountain, on the week of our 14th anniversary. Why? It’s an answer I struggle to articulate. Because I can’t see these things anywhere else? Because I challenge my mind constantly and my body hardly ever? Because without the discipline of walking, I can never slow my mind down enough to listen? Because carrying everything you need forces you to embrace simplicity and to be grateful for what you have? Because I do not feel happier than I feel when I turn a corner and stare one of my oldest, deepest friends in the face, and see an aspect of that marvelous mountain I have never seen before? Because I enjoy the right kind of suffering? I’m not sure I ever have fully answered the why of loving to backpack, but I can assure you my heart exulted as soon as my boots hit the trail. (My heart promptly started to work overtime as those boots immediately pulled me up the hill to Frozen Lake.)
Since returning to the email-filled world, I have found myself as I so often do – lying in a hotel bed in some city, mind racing with the challenges of the day. There are few things I resent more than work dreams. So instead I pick a section of path, in my mind, and walk it as close to memory as I can. I pull out as many of the scenes, unwittingly recorded. The sights, the smells, the creak of the pack, the loam underfoot. I see the avalanche lily, the lupine, the columbine, the Jeffrey’s shooting star. I watch the moon setting over Mt. Rainier behind Mineral Mountain. The hike feeds and nourishes my true self, and gives strength for the labors that are needed.
I’ve thought of a thousand things I want to tell you about my five days of bliss. How much I love my purple hiking shirt. How Adam and I learned just how little water people truly need compared to how much they use. Why Eagle’s Roost is so lovely. What it feels like for me to walk in the dark without my contacts. How beautifully my knee held up in extremis. What five days without any sort of internet access was like. How desperately I need a much better point and shoot camera for my next trip. Perhaps those thoughts will sneak out, but I struggle enough just to tell the primary stories, never mind the quirkier, flashing tales that sneak across my mind and are gone in a twinkling. So you shall have to be content with this:
Hymns play through my mind as I walk, unbidden. There is less atmosphere so high to interfere between me and God.
Editor’s Note: My parents take all their grandchildren for a week every summer for a hedonistic weekend called Camp Gramp. It includes Lucky Charms, adventures, tents and connection with family. We parental units are released on our own recognizance, and my mother sends out updates to assure us we can continue to ignore our progeny happily. I repost her updates, when I’m not on Mt. Rainier. Here’s the first.
Camp Gramp! Day One
It is a miracle! The children are nestled all snug in their beds — I can’t vouch for what is dancing around in their heads, but they all seem to be asleep without the usual 13 trips to remind them that tomorrow is another day. This could be because the Flynn crew were up early this morning. However it happened, it has been a good start.
Camp Gramp t-shirts are all tie dyed and tucked in their plastic bags for a night of getting more intense.
The tents are all up. The kids are getting to be a much better help in that capacity.
Much laughing and giggling and “Let’s pretending” has already gone on.
On the down side, poor Papapa has pneumonia and is feeling far from well. Hopefully his medicine will kick in soon. It is discouraging to feel worse after the doctor.
Brenda and Adam are going tomorrow morning to try for camping spots for Mt. Rainier.
I am headed for bed. My day hasn’t been quite as long, but it has been busy, and those kids are getting a head start on me.
Today I stepped out of my old brick building consumed with the problems and challenges of an office-worker with cubicle and projects to bring in on budget. I turned the corner to cross the Fort Point Channel and watched the low-riding wave of a cloud break across the sky-scrapers of the financial district in the Hub of the Universe. For a moment, foot-fast and bustled on every side, I was transported to Klapatche Park on Mt. Rainier. One trip, as we ascended the vast mountain, we arrived at this long sought and often missed site at the same time a determined cloud did. Although some of the finest scenery in the world was being covered by that cloud, I was struck motionless watching the vast wave of cloud crash over the banks of the mountain, swarming the walls like determined soldiers heedless of survival. The motion, the energy of those clouds stayed with me still.
Today I watched those self-same clouds, or their sisters, break across the monoliths of capitalism in the storied ancient city on the Atlantic. I thought, for a moment, how proud, how special those drops of water must be to touch those soaring buildings. Of all the water in the world, THEY were the ones dancing around the marble-dewed palaces of One International Place and the State Street Financial Center.
But then I realized, in a dizzying turnabout, where else those water molecules might have been in their journey.
They came to us, those dancing particles of mist, through fire and ice. Some were born as the molten core of the new world cooled. Others journeyed through distance stars and long milennia of darkness in the hearts of comets – only to smash against a planet, water droplets like the broken pieces of chandeliers scattering on impact. Those fog banks nurtured the first complex compounds. They supported the first gasping explorers on land with pools and puddles. In the hot ages of the earth, they steamed around the swirling feet of animals unwitnessed by human eye. Those droplets were locked up for a thousand thousand years in a timeless icebank. They explored the depths of the ocean, marvels in the dark pressure that will forever escape our knowing. They were trapped quietly under continents, rolling through limestone caves. They have lived a million lives, passing ten million times through the beating hearts of creatures from the humblest to the mightiest. Perhaps that water ran through the channels of civilizations unknown, who did not build in rock for us to remember. Perhaps that cloud, there, witnessed the rising up of the silent sentinels of Easter Island. Perhaps that water was lifted by a hyssop branch on a sponge to a parched and dying man. Perhaps it was an iceburg, unseen, calved in the North Atlantic in the path of the maiden voyage of a mighty ship. A thousand moments in history, known and unknown, this water has coursed through. Or perhaps, over its long voyage, this is its first encounter with any human history at all.
It is not the water that should be proud to writhe around our mighty buildings, our great civilization, our high towers. It is we who should be humble before this water which has come from the beginnings of our time, passed through our ancestors and and ancestor’s ancestors, and yet is unchanged in its tendrils, habits and majesty. It endures and persists. It may be in constant motion, or content to stand still for uncounted ages. Witnessed, unwitnessed. Noticed, unnoticed. Remarked or unremarked.
Today that water danced in the city, swooping low above the heads of the distracted, the busy, the self-important. And we did not attend it. It did not care, because it does not exist for our approbation.
I was, perhaps, unduly influenced by Tolkien in my youth. And by “unduly influenced” I really mean “secretly spent Junior High living in Middle Earth” and “can still recite Elvish poetry”. I was raised in tall and wild mountains with tall and wild trees and short and prosaic people, (Ah, Tuffy Suter!) although one or two of them might have passed as Bjoernings.
In one scene in “The Fellowship of the Ring” (skipped over in the movies) Legolas is warned by Galadriel of the lure of the sea – that once he hears the gulls cry he will never again know peace. Of course, Legolas does not then say, “Right ho! I’ll just head back through the Mines of Moria and forget this whole Fellowship business.” He travels the Paths of the Dead and in the course of commandeering some slave ships hears those fated gulls.
I always thought this bit was lame because pffft. The sea. Lamesauce. I was all about the mountains: high, majestic, completely familiar and yet unknowable, omnipresent and unscalable with volcanic secrets buried deep in their hearts and an aspect of icy glory overlooking millennia of maudlin human history. Give me the mountains, the forests, the deep glades and rushing streams and I will be content. I lift my eyes unto the hills. Living between the mighty Mt. Rainier and the sliver of the Pacific Ocean known as Puget Sound, my heart could have been swayed either way. But I turned my back on the sea and gave my heart to the hills.
This has remained true even as my coastal allegiance has switched. I spent four years of college in New London – gazing out of Long Island Sound – and only ventured to the shore a handful of times. I live now within 10 miles of the Atlantic Coast in an old and storied land, and over the past few years – again – I have only ventured to the seltzered strand a handful of times. When I drag my complaining menfolk to wilderness, I drag them to the lakes and “mountains” of New England. (I spent several years rather disdaining the label mountains for the worn down nubs of granite in New England, but closer proximity has given me rather a more grudging admiration.)
But then this new job, and this new commute that have driven so much of my wordcount in 2012. And as part of this urban 2 mile adventure I undertake every day, I pass over a tiny slip of the sea – the shivered remnants of the once great Fort Point Channel. It is the ocean in its most bounded – a sliver of barren water bounded on either side of my commute by iron bridges, commuters and noisy trucks.
And yet that sliver of water is to me as the gulls were to my dear Legolas. It commands my attention when I pass it. Is it high tide, low tide or some in between state? I gaze at the mussels and barnacles encrusting the stations on the bridge. On dark dull mornings, the water is a choppy gray. On bright cheerful afternoons, a sparkling blue. The waters carry with the mysteries of the ocean, unbounded, unknown, unplumbed and it lures my imagination. As I once gazed out my window and imagined myself trekking on dusty trails through quiet groves, now I imagine myself the intimate of those vast waters. I see a slowly growing friendship between myself and the mysteries of the deep – or at least of the New England coast.
This summer I’ve managed already to cadge an invitation with a friend to spend at least a weekend close enough to hear crashing waves in your sleep. Gloucester and its beaches are a quick jaunt away, when the heat of summer weighs down the suburbs. Perhaps some chance will come to gaze on Maine’s rocky coast and investigate tide pools. And my summer plans tentatively include a few days on the other coast – the mists and rocks of the Oregon coast.
To the Sea, to the Sea! The white gulls are crying,
The wind is blowing and the white foam is flying.
West, west away, the round sun is falling.
Grey ship, grey ship, do you hear them calling,
The voice of my people that have gone before me?
I will leave, I will leave the woods that bore me;
For our days are ending and our years are failing.
I will pass the wide waters lonely sailing.
Long are the waves on the Last Shore falling,
Sweet are the voices of the Lost Isle calling,
In Eressea, in Elvenhome that no man can discover,
Where the leaves fall not: land of my people forever!
The jam count is now up to 4. Unfortunately, we did not get any more apricots this week. Instead, we got half as many plums as I would need to make plum jam. I’m not sure whether I’ll attempt to buy enough plums to make jam or attempt to eat the plums. 18 is an awkward number of plums to eat in a week. Happily, I did have enough peaches and made peach jam last night. Interim reports are that it is delicious. Also, I am now out of jam jars.
I’m thinking of making apple jelly this fall.
Then, while the jam was setting, I went upstairs to finally get all the pictures off my camera. I won’t pretend this is the best edited set of pictures ever, or the best pictures ever for that matter. It sort of goes like this:
But we’re going camping again this weekend and I’ll likely take another set of pictures nearly identical to the last three sets of camping pictures, so I figured I’d clean off the camera. I make no apology for the nearly identical gorgeous pictures of Mt. Rainier.
The next morning we awoke (still a bit jetlagged) under cheerfully cloudless blue skies. Amongst the bustle of the morning, I put my contacts in. One of them was torn, due to lack of light when I’d put them away the night before. It was with great relief that I recalled I had actually thought to tuck two new contacts into my pack the night before. No problem! I got the new contact and popped it in.
Or dropped it rather, I thought. Everything was still totally fuzzy, and nothing felt wrong in my eye. I felt all around. I looked everywhere. I called my husband to help. We searched and searched. A tent isn’t that large a place — there was no drain for it to fall down. But we couldn’t find it. I had one spare contact left. If I put it in, I would have no backup, but after fruitless searching, I had no other choice.
I put the second contact in. And I dropped it too, not to be found! But wait! What are the odds of that? I wear contacts every single day. I put them in and take them out no problem. Dropping two in a row and not having them findable? My husband looked at me and said, “Are you SURE it’s not in your eye?” I think you see where this is going. I took one contact of my eye. Then I took a second. I put one back in. I took it out and put the other in. Nothing. Totally out of my element, I left one of the not-helpful contact in and attempted to proceed with my day. It was hard. The information from my bad eye was very confusing. I had trouble judging distances (very bad on the trail with steps down and up, etc.) I kept closing my eye to rest my poor brain. And, in the rush, despite being on the list, I had not packed my glasses.
Disaster. But what could you do? We started hiking anyway.
Between Golden Lakes and North Puyallup is a truly lovely section of trail. There’s an ancient burn area jutting out from the mountain with blueberries, old whitened tree trunks and spectacular views on every side. As we stood with our backs turned to the astonishing mountain that is Rainier and gazed out on the Cascades, I remarked that anywhere else, this Cascade-view would be worthy of its own National Park. The breeze blowed strongly, whisking away the mosquitoes and flies which were our persistent companions this trip. The sun was hot, but the wind blowing off the glaciers was refreshing. It was the sort of trail that seems as though it might go on for many chapters of the story. The only problem was the one-eyedness, and that indeed was a problem, but it couldn’t spoil my delight.
We stopped for a break at what my mother and I, on one of our previous (failed) attempts at the West Side had called “Almost There” Creek. It is not, for the record, almost to North Puyallup. It is a lovely example of one of the cascades the mountains are named for. The water is cold and crystal clear, crashing down on rocks and crags with the exuberance of youth. There are deeper pools and white shards of water. It is surrounded on all sides by vast trees in the primes of their fir-existence. For all the glory of the mountain, this little crossing is actually one of my favorite spots on the trail.
North Puyallup Campground, on the other hand, is not. For the record, the toilet is out at the campground and you have to cross a very perilous bridge and walk roughly 1/4 mile to get to the toilet that IS functional. It’s buggy, hot, overgrown and unpleasant. The North Puyallup River roils and boils with dangerous intensity under your feet as you cross the bridge. The walk up out of North Puyallup is another toil. The view of Mt. Rainier is lovely. That’s about all that can be said for it. Unlike the other climbs/descents, this one is largely in a vast gash from a 20 year old avalanche. You walk through switchback after switchback of nasty scrub, full of devil’s club and clingy, itchy bracken. The footing is insecure. The bugs are plentiful and determined. It was, therefore, a great delight when we crested the slope to come to Klapatchee Camground and Aurora Lake.
Klapatchee had the worst bugs of our stay. (Travelers the other direction told us that the bugs at aptly named Devil’s Dream campground were epic. One described them as ‘Biblical’.) We had used our head nets before, but they were critical to any enjoyment of that lovely little lake. Our campground looked out past the Park to the West, and there was an amazing view of Mt. Rainier reflected in shallow Aurora Lake, which was teeming with frogs, tadpoles and water beetles. (We had no cell reception. I was hoping we would. We had no cell reception anywhere.) We read each other “The Hobbit” in the quiet of a starlit tent.
That night’s dinner was Mexican Style Rice & Chicken by Mountain House. It was bland, but acceptable. The other meals were to be preferred. I also figured out that the spare contact I’d brought with mere were of a prescription +2.75. My prescription is -2.75. I’d ditched the bad contact at Almost There Creek, and things improved.
It took us nearly 2 hours to break camp every morning, but the third day it mattered less. We only had 4 miles to go. Hiking out of Klapatchee Park campground, we saw an enticing trail break away from the Wonderland, without the standard, “This isn’t a trail, don’t walk here” boilerplate that the park service puts up when it doesn’t want you meadow stomping. A careful analysis of the trail even indicated some maintenance, so we decided it would be ok if we checked it out. We dropped our packs on the trail, and headed up Aurora Peak.
Boy, were we glad we dropped them. It was STEEP. It was gorgeous. We walked through fragrant fields of bee-busy lupine in the morning sun. Towards the top, there were dropoffs that made me cling to the trail with all my might. They were likely not survivable. It is a strange thing to do something which is truly perilous — we’re prevented in so much of our lives from doing anything really dangerous (except driving) by guard rails and warning signs. All that was between us and falling to our deaths on the rocks below was our own common sense and a few scraggly flowers. But the view from the top of Aurora Peak was astounding. We could see our paths ahead and behind. We could see as far as the Olympics (sadly it was a bit hazy). It was extremely buggy, so we didn’t linger long. Even our headnets didn’t protect us enough.
We took our time crossing St. Andrews Park, then headed down to South Puyallup. For a lowland campground, South Puyallup is lovely. The toilet there is set against these amazing basalt cliffs. There were very few bugs there (to our relief and amazement). The forest canopy is high and deep. The campground is delightful, even if the water could be improved. We got in early, so we had plenty of leisure time. At one point, Adam said, “Brenda, what are you doing?” Lying there, my boots off, looking up at the dancing branches, I sighed deeply and happily replied, “Nothing.”
We ate two dinners that night. These backpacker dinners are only 300 – 400 calories a serving, which is less than I eat for dinner when I’m dieting and NOT enough to feed a body that’s been working as hard as ours did. We didn’t bring enough breakfasts, so I wanted to be as full as possible that night, and I knew that with a hard, 11.5 mile day the next day we’d need our strength. They were both excellent: Mountain House Lasagna with Meat Sauce, and Mountain House Chicken a la King with Noodles.
Even pushing hard, it STILL took us 2 hours to break camp on our out day. We woke up early, but somehow found it was 9 by the time we hit the trail. We had 2.5 uphills and 3 major downhills over 11.5 miles to do. Even without having to make camp at the end, that’s tough. The first vista of the day was Emerald Ridge. It’s one of the oddest places on the trail – a place where you become unnervingly aware that Mt. Rainier is an active volcano. A red scree falls of to your left — ferrous stone left behind by a glacier. To your right these strange moraines — long straight ridges like the ominous backs of sleeping giants. No loam underfoot, only slippy rock, clattering against your ankles and making footing treacherous.
At the bottom of the downhill comes a vast suspension bridge. This is no section for agoraphobics. It is high. It is narrow. It swings. And there is no 911. It was fun. The uphill afterwards, however, was the most brutal of the trip for me. I knew we needed to make time, so I tried to keep up with Adam’s pace. About halfway I had a litany of why I couldn’t, starting with “I gave birth 9 months ago” and ending with “I have a torn meniscus in my left knee” with a few stops in between.
The top of THAT uphill is Indian Henry’s. Indian Henry is a gorgeous area. However, at the best of times it’s extremely buggy. In this bumper year for bugs, it was nearly unendurably so. We pelted through the alpine meadows, glancing back over our shoulders at the mountain as we ran. We hiked with our nets on, which was hot but preferable to the alternatives. (At one point on the journey, a woman told me that if she had $100 she would give it to me for my hat/headnet combination. I wouldn’t have taken it.) We kept pushing through Devil’s Dream, which was truly infested.
The downhill out of Devil’s Dream was actually not bad. South Puyallup seemed a million years ago. The crossings were tough at Pyramid Creek. The uphill to the top of Rampart Ridge was not so bad. About halfway down Rampart Ridge, we met a couple. I greeted them with the standard backpacker’s greeting, “Where are you headed?” We chatted. Then they said, “Are you Aunt Brenda?” My sweet niece Kay had asked them, they said, if they knew me. The kids were on the trail to meet us. A new wind swept under my weary feet and we fairly flew down the rest of the mountain, until we heard childish voices. My sweet boy Grey ran forward to give (deet-covered, sweaty and smelly) me a big hug. Baz swung his walking stick perilously as he carefully explained what they were doing.