“Isn’t it weird?” the fellow in the tent next to ours mused. “I started at Longmire and I tell you, all the way up a couple of those inclines, I kept wondering why I wasn’t at home sitting on my couch, watching the Mariners on TV.”
We chuckled knowingly. He had a very good point. Why go out on a mountain trail for several days, far from any of the comforts of home, climbing to absurd altitudes, pushing your body beyond what you thought was its maximum endurance point? Why? Why sleep on the ground on a flimsy excuse for a pad?
Why eat rehydrated food and pump water through a little purifier that takes about fifteen minutes of cranking to fill a water bottle? Why brave the unpredictable weather? Why go places where you have to hang your food on a pole overnight to make sure the bears don’t take it? Why put yourself in a place where a little oversight—a delay, for example, in taking care of a just-beginning blister—can result in a huge problem? Why do these things?
Obviously, there is a standard list of answers to all these questions. Mostly, though, it comes down to, “Well, um, just because.” Sure, we can talk about all the beauty and the exhilaration of seeing waterfalls and lakes and rivers and wildflower-intoxicated meadows and the astonishing workings of nature. There’s all that. There’s the odd joy of being one of the privileged few to see these things. (Photographs will never, never come near to conveying what it is to be in the presence of all this beauty.) And there’s a sense of accomplishment, making your way from Point A up and down difficult trails to an even more astonishing Point B, then taking care of yourself, making food, creating shelter, sleeping, getting up and going at it again.
But the point remains: You could be at home, sitting on your couch, comfortable beyond your awareness of how comfortable you are.
“You doing the whole Wonderland Trail?” we asked our friendly neighbor.
“I plan to,” he said. “But I don’t know if I can quite finish in five days.”
“Five days?” We were aghast. The trail covers roughly 93 miles, crenelated like a huge battlement wall or the edge of a pie dish placed over Mt. Rainier so that we would rise above the meadows and descend beneath the glaciers, and thus fashion our own merry-go-round experience of hiking, huffing, puffing and triumphing in our circuit of the mountain.
“My hiking buddy turned around after the first day,” our new friend went on. “So I’m doing it alone.”
“Good fortune to you!”
He nodded his head. “How far do you plan to go today?” he asked.
“Eagle’s Roost,” we said, suddenly feeling very small.
He roared. “That’s less than two miles away, you know!” he bellowed. “Just down the trail a bit, around the next corner.”
The fields were full of varying shades of yellow and blue and purple and red and white—daisies, lupine, Indian paintbrush, and dozens of flowers whose names I don’t yet know. And I paused occasionally, out of breath from the climbing, and contemplated carpets of flowers—perhaps an oversized bouquet of columbines—and wondered: What would it feel like, just to be planted here? No backpacking trips. No movies. No baseball games. No books or conversations by the woodstove. No going anywhere. Just doing a gentle tai chi in the breeze all day, sucking up moisture from the soft earth. Just being here. Perhaps eventually flash frozen in an early winter storm, having somehow found a way to regenerate oneself with seed now resting like a dormant bear for the first signs of spring.
Then I took a deep breath, and on I trudged. On long inclines, I hobbled forward, leaning on and pushing myself forward with a hiking pole, much like a cane. I had come to prove to myself that I still had it in me to exert myself on the mountain…and there I was, looking and feeling for all the world like an old man.
Everyone—I mean, everyone—hiking in my direction passed me. The truth seemed apparent when one young man, passing me after I had pulled to the side of the trail, said quietly, “Thanks, sir.”
Sir? Yes, that’s me with the thinning silver hair, struggling up the path.
There really is no denying the fact that the mountain is merciless, I mused a couple of days later. It won’t give an inch on certain things. It doesn’t say, “Oh, that’s all right. You can rest for a couple of hours. I’ll just stop time for you.” It doesn’t make certain you don’t trip. It doesn’t protect you from harm. It doesn’t make sure its trails don’t fall into the river.
There is, therefore, an inevitable feeling of awe when hiking on a distant mountain trail. It is beyond explanation. Like approaching the goddess of life and death, the great leveler, Kali, hat in hand, willing to stay awake and alive to anything that might happen, willing to embrace utter reality, willing to step beyond the comfortable world that my own mind constantly makes up, the fiction, and to attempt instead the dangerous dance of life and death.
The Top of the World, about five hundred feet below the top of Skyscraper Peak, opened out onto a 360-degree view of mountains and valleys, even giving the odd impression that the summit of Mount Baker, far in the distance, was much lower than where we stood.
About two hours later, we asked a tourist to take our photograph as we stood in front of a big sign at Sunrise, our destination. But it was the photo taken by a likable fellow hiker at the Top of the World that captured the day—maybe even all five days. Something in our smiles. Something about the snow and waterfalls and cobweb-clearing fresh air and life-inspiring sunshine illuminating the clouds and the sense that we’d reached our own personal finish lines. We’d won.
All the way to heaven
–Catherine of Siena
Our trip began at Mowich Lake in the northwestern portion of Mount Rainier National Park and continued to Sunrise in the northeast, about a fourth of the way around the mountain. Visitors can stay in rustic but luxurious lodges (Wellspring, for example—in Ashford, just outside of the National Park—www.wellspringspa.com) or in one of the two National Park Inns (www.mtrainierguestservices.com). And it’s possible to see a lot of the mountain from your car and on shorter walks. (Just to put us all in our place, a young friend of mine did the 93-mile hike in about 25.5 hours a few years ago.)