I almost bailed on this hike when I realized there’s a 2100 foot elevation increase in just 4.5 miles, but I’m not a quitter. I can do it. (No way, though, am I doing the second part of the hike after the meadow, the Panhandle Gap. Another 900 foot gain in a mile and a half. Besides, it’s rocks and I’m more a meadow girl.) I’d put it off two days though, hoping both the wildfire haze and my summer head cold fog would improve.
Hoping to beat the haze at Rainier, and just maybe catch the sunrise, I set my alarm for 4:15, just in case this is the one day I’m not already awake. It isn’t. I get up at 4 and am out the door at 4:30. Downside: my coffee kiosk doesn’t open until 5:30. I stop at the one at Jackson Prairie and wait seven minutes for its 5:00 opening.
I’m a full hour too early for the coffee shop in Packwood with the killer trail bars I was counting on for breakfast. Granola bar it is. The Summerland trailhead, another new hike, is on the “other” side of the mountain. The dark sky begins turning pink on the way up Highway 12 and by the time I’m on the road to the trailhead, the mountain is glowing. Civil twilight, my friend calls it. It’s always been my favorite time of day, it’s why I rise early; but I never knew the name for it. It’s the space between stories: the dying night and the risen day.
There are plenty of parking spots at the trailhead. Knowing the trail is in the forest, I decide to buzz on up the last ten miles of road and see if I can catch the sunrise at Sunrise. I stop just short at the view point in the center of the hairpin curve and step out into the nippy acrid air. I’ve missed it; maybe by the seven minutes at the coffee kiosk?
There are more cars when I get back to the trailhead, and though the day will be full of people, I see almost no one on the trail. It’s one of the most beautiful forest hikes I’ve been in. A wide easy trail, multiple creek crossings, the continuous sound of Fryingpan Creek (more a river) as it tumbles ever downward, occasional views of the palisades cliffs and mountains make me glad to be alive and strong and here today. And, a surprise, though there are no level spots to speak of, the incline is gentle nearly the whole way.
I break into the meadow at 10:00. There is Herself, smoke free, flanked by her constant companion on this side: Little Tahoma. The meadows here are hilly, like Paradise; so different from the Grand Park plateau where I was last week (here).
Also unlike Grand Park, it’s not far to the other side of the meadow. Most of it is “fragile meadow” protected and there’s only one trail that skirts the edge. I get to where the rocks begin, and decide to go on a bit and then a bit more. I wish I could get a visual on Panhandle Gap, but I have no idea where it is. (Turns out, it isn’t visible from where I stood.)
I gasp as an impossibly blue pond. It’s a meltwater pond, I learn later from a friend, and ice cold. So much for its call to come for a swim. I see where the Gap is now, there is a line of people silhouetted against the blue sky. The trail gets steeper and rockier. I stumble many times, failing to plant my pole before I put weight on it. I lose the trail several times, quickly spotting my mistake and turning back.
What am I doing? My hiking friend loves this trail, but it is suddenly clear where we differ in hike choices. My passion is the meadows—in its changing seasons—hers is walking the broken pieces of ancient rocks. She likes to be on the mountain, I like to be in them. I’m reminded of my mother, who grew up at the foot of the gentle Appalachian Mountains, then lived 70 years in view of these rugged monoliths. “You can embrace those old mountains,” she said, “and they love you back. These mountains are grand and beautiful; but they couldn’t care less if you like them or not.” (Perhaps I paraphrased that a bit.) The meadows are the space between the stories: my mother’s friendly forests and the wild rocky crumbling mountain.
I almost turn back several times. I want to be in the meadow, not abusing my body in this barrenness. I know I can do it; if I don’t reach the summit, it’s because I don’t want to. If I do, it’s only to prove that I can. And I want to know what’s on the other side. Sometimes curiosity trumps common sense. I told myself when I started, I would go until 12:00. It’s 11:40. I start moving again. I arrive at 12:00 straight up.
And on the other side? Meadows! And a hazy skyline of layered foothills and the cap of Mt. Adams, the rest of her obscured in smoke. I wonder what else is hidden. I stop to talk to a couple from southern Illinois who are on day 11 of the Wonderland Trail, almost finished. They tell me it was clear earlier. Did I miss it by the 30 minutes I took looking for the sunrise at Sunrise?
Another hiker joins the conversation, pointing out the plum of smoke in the distance. He was told it’s been burning since April and they are “letting it burn.” What does that mean? I know fire makes healthier forests, but is anyone watching it? Have they done a back burn to keep it from spreading? I have questions.*
I head down a ways into the meadow and eat my lunch, dreading the trip back down through the rocks. Wondering if I stay here long enough if the smoke will clear. Or maybe it will spread to engulf Herself. I’ve been watching the webcams and it seems to come and go. I’m concerned about my camping trip near Mt. Adams next week. There is a fire not far away and I’m guessing it is what’s causing the smoke I’m looking at.
I get back to the blue pond. The sun is straight overhead, casting a shadow of the bare rock mountains onto the snow field at its base, the remaining vee of white snow reflecting in the pond. Spirit fills me. Like Stonehenge on the winter solstice, a moment in time. I feel Mama’s presence, as a stand with the Holy for several minutes. I would have missed this had I not done the hard work of climbing to the top.
I exchange photo ops with a sister hiker then make a cairn to show Mama the way, just before I reenter the meadow, though clearly she is already here. I stop and soak my weary feet in the frigid monkeyflower-adorned creek before I head back across the meadow and down the trail.
Next week I’m camping and the following week is my swan song hike to Paradise. Autumn is beginning to show in this meadow; in two weeks the Sitka mountain ash and huckleberries should be glowing in orange and red before the snows begin. Summer and autumn in the mountains is the quick breath of space in the story of these wild places where winter reigns. I’ll take some of Mama’s ashes with me and say goodbye. She will always be there on my annual Skyline hike; but then she is there on every hike already.
* My favorite forester tells me fires are never unmonitored and when they let these naturally caused (lightening strike) fires burn, they always have a plan. Unlike human-caused fires (which they never let burn), lightening strikes generally occur where there are rocky outcroppings and other natural features that help keep it contained. (The Miriam fire, near White Pass, the one I’m guessing is causing the smoke in the photo and is near to my campground, was a probable lightening strike in early August. I read there are multiple strategies being employed, depending on proximity to populated areas for one thing. They hope to have it fully contained by the end of the month.) Interesting stuff.