I live in Paradise. There is an embarrassment of riches in Washington State, and simply not enough days to go everywhere there is to go, let alone to return to where I’ve been already. Yesterday I reluctantly eschewed the backside of Skyline Trail at Paradise—the only place I regularly go back to (photo essay here)—and went on a new hike: Tolmie Peak Lookout at Mowich Lake.
I’m used to solitary hiking, often not seeing more than half a dozen other hikers. (Well, except at Paradise.) “Beautiful day,” “Thank you [for stepping aside],” “Enjoy your hike.” That’s the extent of the conversation. Not so this hike. For a Monday, there were a lot of people. And they were chatty, needy if truth be told. It was nice, though it took time and I did need to be home to cook dinner.
The first conversation was at the fee station, 11 miles in of the 16 miles of washboard, potholed Forest Service road. (I didn’t have to pay the $25 fee, of course, thanks to my lifetime Senior Access pass that cost $10.) “Have you been on this road before?” asked the driver of an SUV full of non-English speaking passengers. She approached me carrying a Mt. Rainier National Park map. “Once,” I said. “I think I’m on the wrong road,” she said.
I knew right away she wanted to be at Paradise. I hated telling her she couldn’t get there from here. In Spanish, she explained to her passengers. I don’t know where she had come from, but it would take her three hours to get to Paradise from where we were. I got my road map and showed her how to get there. Told her I was sorry. “It’s okay,” she shrugged, resigned to the change in their day.
I rattled my way on up the road, narrowly missing a grouping of three Volkswagen-size potholes when I glanced up at the view then back to the road. One section was not unlike that tilting board marble game, trying to keep first the right then the left tire out of randomly scattered potholes, hard to distinguish from shadows on the sun-dappled road.
I scored a parking place along the road at the trail head at 9:30 (90 miles and three hours from home), saving a round-trip mile walk from the parking lot. Right away I could see the trail was not going to be easy, full of roots and boulders. But the lake was sparkling through the trees, reflecting the snowy mountains; and, well, you just can’t take a photo of the smell. I was practically dancing in exultation. Okay, I did dance.
It is an 1100 foot elevation change in 2.8 miles to the lookout, and the first mile was more down than up. This could be trouble. Trekking poles out of the pack.
Eunice Lake. Beautiful blue water, spectacular white mountain, blue lupine, red Indian paintbrush, pink heather, white bear grass. The mosquitoes and deer flies I had read so much about didn’t seem to like me. I was happy not to converse with them. Then I spotted my destination, a dot perched atop a stone cliff. I decided to eat my lunch at the lake and gather my strength, skeptical but determined I would get there. Voices and laughter wafted down from the lookout. I hoped the people attached to them would leave before I arrived.
The climb wasn’t so bad, no worse than where I had already been. And the view. Oh. My. Before the lookout came into view, the trail popped over the ridge to the vista. I read you can see Seattle from there. It was hazy, I only thought maybe I could see Puget Sound; but then, maybe not. The Olympics were just visible where there was still snow.
I had met lots of college age people heading down. I was hopeful that was it. Rounding the curve to the tower there were eight more young women. Leaving! I took a photo for them and I was alone. Two minutes later, a bearded man came up the trail. I took the steps up the tower. He took a picture on his hefty camera and left. Really? Maybe he had to get home for lunch.
I walked around the catwalk of the locked station. 360 breathtaking degrees. Mt. Baker, Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens. And Mother Mountain. A handful of people straggled up. There were two beds in the tower, I bet they could make a lot of NP money renting out the extra. Can you imagine the sunrise and sunset? (Lightening storms might be beyond the pale.)
I wanted to stay for hours, but I already wasn’t going to make my 2:00 on-the-road time, to be back in time to shower and sit a bit before dinner. I headed back down. “Do you know what to do about the deer flies?” No. That was the next conversation. “Are we halfway there? A quarter?” the other young woman asked. Maybe halfway. “There’s going to be an elopement here next Saturday,” she said. “We thought we should check out the trail.” I guess! I was unsure what about a planned ceremony with apparent guests made it an elopement.
“Do you happen to have any bug spray?” was next. The teenager had welts on her legs. I handed it over, apologizing that it was probably well-past its shelf-life, but hoped it would help. Not saying that everything I’d read said it didn’t help. Mom used it too; dad said they weren’t eating him. They were from Pennsylvania, never been out here. Trying to decide where to go this summer. France? Well, how about Seattle? Lots you can see in a week. They were kind of blown away.
I read on Facebook about friends going to far off lands, and I’m a little envious—I will probably never see them. But truly, from my centrally located small town, I could go someplace new here every day and not hike every trail I want to hike. And that doesn’t count an overnight or two and adjoining states. There aren’t ancient ruins, but it is ancient. There aren’t man-made cathedrals, but there are heavenly ones.
Back at Eunice Lake I met a woman and three pig-tailed teen girls in short shorts and tank tops. Whining. The woman—with more skin covered and appearing to be carrying everyone’s bags—asked me if there were fewer bugs after leaving the lake. Uh, yeah, sure. That’s what she wanted me to say. “We’re going back,” one girl whined while all three slapped at mosquitoes. “I want to go the top,” the woman insisted. “Noooooo,” another moaned. “You go,” the other said, “we’re going back.” “It’s really worth it!” I said, “You should go.” “Did you hear that?” the woman said. “We are going back,” they said firmly. “I want to keep going,” the woman said. I moved on.
I didn’t think the overweight elderly man with braces on both knees and both elbows, shuffling with a cane as his grandson helped him step over roots, was going to make it, but who am I to say “nay” to the determination of the human spirit. They asked if it was beautiful at the top; said that’s where they were headed. I said it would take a thesaurus to describe it. I said I hoped they enjoyed their day.
I may not need to go to Paradise again. I found one by another name. But there is the Base Camp Grill in Ashford. I sure could have used a beer and a salmon burger at the outdoor tables at the end of the day. Instead there were the 16 clunking, elderly-car, bone-chattering miles. I slammed on my brakes at the brink of the sink hole I didn’t see coming, turned to say goodbye to her majesty, and went home.
I was only an hour later than planned for dinner.