The prophet John Muir

“I must drift about these love-monument mountains, glad to be a servant of servants in so holy a wilderness.” John Muir – “My First Summer in the Sierra”

My friends, I’ve fallen head-over-heels in love. This is the literary equivalent of texting your bestie from the bathroom at a date to tell her that you have found *the one*. I can’t believe I’ve gone this long without really getting to know this man who is so very perfect for me.

My heart-throb

In a desultory fashion, I saw his book when I was up at Mt. Rainier buying All The Mt. Rainier Things. And I now own no fewer than two t-shirts that say “The mountains are calling and I must go” citing him and Rainier in the same breath. So before I headed off backpacking with my son I downloaded his “Nature Writings” – which start with his autobiography. His life starts out both hard and common. He speaks of the beatings, the fighting, the memorization that mark his childhood. To modern ears it sounds beyond brutal and brutalizing. In his teenage years, his father abandons him down a well for the better part of a day for days on end (where he nearly dies), and his growth is stunted by the heavy constant labors of plowing and toiling in fields. But somehow he wakes up hours early every day and invents (without the internet, or even many books) devices whose purpose I can’t even understand, never mind whose workings.

Somehow, from that drudgery and brutality, is born an open-hearted poet.

This man speaks to me in a way I thought only Tolkien could. He is a co-religionist in every sense. Like me, he was a Presbyterian, although raised in a much more stern and unforgiving religious environment. But he seems to find God in the same places I do – in the mountains and streams and forests. His love of nature is a worshipful reflection of a God whom he never seems to be able to see as nearly as cold and unkind and punishing as his father apparently did. While is story of his youth makes you want to pity him, you can’t. Because through the 16 hour days, the frozen feet, the stunted growth he’s always noticing the beauty and the loveliness of the world and people around him.

Me and the mountain that most often picks up the phone to call me

I’ve just started on his “My First Summer in the Sierra” and oh! How he speaks of the mountains! It’s like hearing someone praise your own beloved, but in words better than you could find. It’s like hearing a prophet speak of your faith, or finding a poet whose words express your heart’s great secrets. I thought that in reading Muir I’d have to put on my “reading 19th century white dude” filter (well-honed to note and then pass by mysogyny, colonialism, racism, and a belief that not only were the spoils of the Americas limitless they were the rightful property of white folks). I’ve been astonished to meet among the pages of these mountain praises the thoughts of a man who generally seems to see all other humans as of equal worth – a man who also understands the gift and limitation of nature’s bounty. Even as he leads sheep to fatten on alpine meadows, he laments the impact of mankind and our beasts on the world, “Only the sky will then be safe, though hid from view by dust and smoke, incense of a bad sacrifice.” (p. 208) One begins to understand by whose hand, and why and how, these marvels were set aside for us in the first place.

My reading has just begun. I start to wish that I had a lovely copy of his works – a Riverside Muir as you would. It seems almost sacrilegious to read his works on the most quintessentially modern Kindle. I feel like I should find a grove in which to encounter his texts as sacred witness to God’s most glorious creations.

Chocorua from White Lake in November

There should be some great conclusion here – some wrapped up discovery. Instead there’s just a hopefulness – that his other writings refresh and inspire my heart so. The astonishing awakening of the morality and decency of those from whom we expected a more “of their era” myopia – and perhaps a similar inspiration to be better than our own era demands. The rising heart of someone who has discovered a whole body of work that seems designed to inspire them, and of which they’ve barely sipped. I can see my future self slowly meting out writings in moments of either great reflection or great need, to feed a famished soul.

“Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days, inciting at once to work and rest! Days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God. Nevermore, however weary, should one faint by the way who gains the blessings of one mountain day; whatever his fate, long life, short life, stormy or calm, he is rich forever.”

Mt. Chocorua at sunset

Muir, John. John Muir: Nature Writings (LOA #92): The Story of My Boyhood and Youth / My First Summer in the Sierra / The Mountains of California / Stickeen / essays (Library of America) Library of America. Kindle Edition.

Backpacking: the Next Generation

Ready to hit the trail

As we flew into Seattle, the tip of Mt. Baker to the right pierced snowy and pristine through a sludge of atmosphere – a few pristine looking glacier piercing through air that was brown and grimy and disgusting. I’d left Boston weather in the 90s looking forward to the break the Northwest would surely give me, only to land in 95 degree dry heat in Seatac. Wednesday was a blur as all the Camp Grampers arrived, we fed everyone, we stopped to pick up some gear, and then the minute I’d finished the 8 hour journey to Mineral I hopped back in my mom’s car to head up the mountain to Longmire.

Longmire in the heat

It’s a remarkable feeling, to have woken up in Boston and yet found yourself staring up the great rift of Longmire Valley, past Rampart Ridges to the Tahoma glacier. When I walked into the ranger station to get my permit, apparently my face transmitted my depth of feeling. “Are you ok?” asked the ranger?

Back in January, I came up with this scheme. For the first time in what feels like ever, I have a little more vacation than Adam does – 3.5 weeks this year and headed to a full 4 weeks next year. Woooo! And every summer there are three main vacation options: go international (like last year), go to my folks’ house and head down to Ashland, or go to my folk’s house and go backpacking. It’s been many long years since that last option was selected. This year, Adam really wanted to go to Ashland again. But I wanted to go backpacking. Then I had a genius idea – I’d go ahead of time without Adam and go backpacking without him. So I reached out to a guide group and signed up for a guided tour – since backpacking alone is dumb and not ok. Bliss!

In June, I got word from the company that no one else signed up for the tour. Cancelled. AAAAAGH! I came up with plans B, C & D, none of which panned out. So here I was, weeks before the trip, with no plan E. My gaze strayed over at my preternaturally tall 12 year old son. You know, the one who was the right size to carry a pack. And who was the same age I was when I first went backpacking. Hmmm…. I carefully felt him out on the topic “Man, I bet you wish you were a big strong adult who could go backpacking like me!” And … he bit! He said he’d be willing to come with me! Usually willingness to hike with me is a sure sign you’ve never hiked with me before (ask Erin) but then and there we arrived at plan E. Ha!

I was careful selecting my route. My natural inclination is to pick my favorite campsites that are available and hike between them, elevation and distance be darned. Many’s the deathmarch I’ve planned for myself. But I wanted to lure Grey in more slowly – maybe even get him to like this without the use of post-hike hypnotic techniques. So colluding with the Ranger, we picked a very scenic, very satisfying, pretty short trip. We’d spend two nights (so the plan went) at Upper Crystal Lake Campground – a pretty, alpine spot only 3 miles off the road – a dead end with two campsites. Then on the second day, we’d day hike out, and hike out the third day.

My way back I meandered – using the last light of the preternaturally long day to walk the trail of shadows and breathe the fragrance of firs. I noted with some unease just how haze-obscured Mt. Rainier was, even from the depths of the park, by the smoke. But hey, it beat the heck out of rain, right?

The next morning Grey and I set out at the crack of noon from the trailhead. His first discovery was how amazing water tastes when pulled fresh from a mountain stream, as we refreshed the water we’d brought with us. And oh, it does taste so very good.

Traditional trailhead photo

We were about a mile up the trail (and by up I mean *UP*) when I realized that my carefully procured, conscientiously updated permit was, uh, back down in the car. I ditched my kid and my backpack and headed back down. And then back up again. Did I mention it was 95 degrees? There was a little bit of observational despair when my son learned that we were taking switchbacks ALL the way up the mountain (I’ve gotten smarter in my old age and no longer point out the distant high peak where I suspect we’ll be stopping), but we got past that and the conversation flowed.

And my, Upper Crystal Lake is a beautiful, beautiful place.

Near where we got our water

We set up camp. We napped. We read our books. We made dinner. (Hiking with a 12 year old sure changes how much food you go through a day!) He taught me how to play spit and Texas Hold’em. I proceeded to get two straight royal flushes and completely wipe him out of hard candy not once, but twice. We fell asleep that night, rain fly off our tent, gazing up at the stars. Before I took my glasses off and roll over, I got to see our tent overflown by the long, silent wings of an owl.

The second morning dawned just as hot. It had cooled off somewhat over night, but we hadn’t slept so much well as long and by the time the sun cleared the mountain walls, the temperature was rising again. There was little shade in the valley, and much bugs. I’d cultivated a blister. And the news from the boots making their way up the valley was that while the mountain – not 20 miles away from us – was currently entirely covered by haze, a cooling, cleansing rain was on its way to the mountains the next day. I prefer to experience my cooling, cleansing rains from indoors, when possible.

It looked like an infinity lake

We took a walk around the lake proper, stopping as is traditional every five minutes to take another picture.

I saw no fish to eat the plentiful bugs

Then we broke up camp and headed back down. And as we got to the bottom, Grey insisted we fill up from that self-same delicious stream to take the water home with us – a precious commodity. And I knew that I’d hooked him.

Backpacking buddy – getting the coldest, fastest water from a mountain stream

You can see all my pictures here!

Fall Colors

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!

And oh, what glory filled my soul

Top of the world
Top of the world

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.

Moonset over Mineral Mountain

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

The tactical travelogue is probably best enjoyed through the hundreds of pictures that survived the editing process. (The pictures are mostly captioned, so if you’d enjoy a day by day you can go through in slideshow.) Adam patiently stopped over a thousand times for the shutter to open and close.

Mt. Rainier above Mystic Lake

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.

Mysterious flower along the trail

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.

Cairn, looking over Mist Park, headed into Spray Park

Camp Gramp: Day 1 2014

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.

I promise to get out the camera tomorrow.

Fog’s rollin’ in. Like a shroud it covers Congress Street.

Klapatche Park – Mt. Rainier: from http://www.desertmarmot.com/trips/rainier05/

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.

The white gulls are crying

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.

My first love – you would dream dreams too if you read Tolkien in this place

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.

My seducer

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!