Can I leave home at the same time I did last year (4:30 am, four days earlier) and get to Mazama Ridge at the top of the Golden Gate trail before the sun comes up, when I wasn’t in time last year? Magical thinking.
I set the alarm for 4:00 Tuesday morning, but I have to get the Airbnb dishes out of the dishwasher and downstairs in case the arriving guest gets here before I return. It’s 4:37 before I’m out the door. There’s a patron ahead of me at the espresso kiosk at Mary’s Corner on Highway 12, another five minute delay. But, unusually, not a lick of fog through Mossyrock; I make up some time.
I’m at the Park gate at 6:07 and entering the Paradise parking lot at 6:37. Bathroom, boots, hat, gloves, and I’m off. It’s 24º. Short my mother’s parka, I’m wearing all the layers available: leggings, long pants, long-sleeved t-shirt, light down vest, fleece jacket, knit cap, gloves with fingers. Except that my fingers are already frozen, I’m good. I stow my poles in my backpack for now so I can keep my hands in my pockets.
It snowed over the weekend. Although Paradise is the snowiest place on earth where snowfall is measured regularly, it’s pretty unusual for it to snow in September. I read that when it snows in October, it generally melts between snowfalls, with the ground not truly covered until November. I’m thinking this is not going to melt. It’s my annual fall color hike (last year was a riot of orange, red, and gold; photos here), but this is a winter palette: white, deep green, and grey. And, oh, the blue. The huckleberry and mountain ash leaves are pretty darn frozen, their color interrupted mid-sentence, with barely an opening salvo. Autumn will not come here this year.
I take a three minute side trip to see if Myrtle Falls is frozen. I never go down the steep steps because it’s always so peopley. It’s the destination from Paradise Inn for non-hikers. But for now, there is no one here but me. The small falls are partly frozen and beautiful.
I reach the Golden Gate and have to choose. Between the trailhead and my hoped for destination, the sun rising over the far ridge and any color will be hidden by the near ridge. If I wait here, as I did last year, I might get some color. I decide to risk the 90% chance of seeing nothing and go for the 10% chance of getting it all. I have to get up those switchbacks—easy to see in the distance in the snow—then up some steps and onto the ridge and then up to the saddle where the unobstructed view breaks open.
I move fast, and have to stop a couple of times to catch my breath and let my heart slow down. When I reach icy steps before the switchbacks, I have to remove my pack and get out my poles. I use a few precious seconds to get photos of where I’ve been, but don’t spend much time marveling.
I wind around the last hillock—another set of steep icy steps slowing me down—still not knowing if I’m in time. And then I’m in the saddle.
Had I gotten out of bed ahead of the alarm instead of looking at Facebook for five minutes I would have been first at the coffee kiosk, and then if I hadn’t stopped to see the falls maybe I would have been in time. I figure I missed it by about eight minutes. Next year. I know now it can be done without hiking in the dark, which I am not inclined to do. Or I could just leave home 15 minutes earlier. But that would mean no latte. Hmm. Priorities.
I sit for a while watching the sun get higher. It’s much warmer now, under the sun. I don’t even need my gloves. Mt. St. Helens, in her new dress, is glorious. In summer she is completely barren and not very distinguishable on the horizon. Mt. Hood hovers in the far back. Ice crystals cover the landscape.
I almost forget to look back at Herself before I move down the Skyline Trail to the rock where I scattered some of my mother’s ashes last September. Fresh snow or not, Rainier is not the main attraction for me on this trail.
“Do you want to share my raspberry chocolate chip muffin?” I ask Mama from the rock.
“No,” she says. “I can’t eat the seeds.”
“I was hoping that was no longer an issue,” I say
“Why, I never thought of that!” she exclaims.
I leave her a bite, but she’s moved on. Perhaps a chipmunk will get an illegal morsel.
I continue down the snowy trail through the meadows that should be a riot of fall colors. I talk for a good while to Bob. He grew up in Tenino, 15 miles from where I grew up and live again. He went to school at WSU on the other side of the mountains, but moved to Montana to join the Air Force to avoid the Vietnam draft. Now he is back in Olympia, where winter doesn’t last six months, he says. He knows Centralia a bit; he might have said he went to Centralia College.
“There’s a nice, um, park? is it? I heard about it, but haven’t been to it yet; east of town I think? With hiking trails?”
“The Natural Area!,” I say, when it registers what he’s talking about. “That’s where I live! On the edge of it!”
Of course I brag about my mother being responsible for its existence. I give him a card, in case he and his wife want to take a wee getaway at the Airbnb.
I make a spontaneous decision to take the Paradise Glacier trail. It’s only 10:00; I’m in no hurry. I’ve been on it only once, and didn’t go far. I want to go east so I can see Mt. Adams, that’s been hidden behind the Pinnacles the whole hike. It’s the trail that goes to where the blue ice caves used to be, where my family hiked, before the glacier receded. I have no idea if it’s possible to determine where they once were. I hike the 1.5 miles to the end of the trail, losing the trail, finding it, then go on a bit farther. I see nothing that indicates where it was. I will have to research.
Before I met Bob and his companion—who hiked on while Bob and I chatted; I suspect he’s used to it—I had seen no one at all since leaving the car. Once back on the Skyline, I meet many people, including two young women from Pennsylvania who ask me to take a picture of them. I do not understand why everyone hikes this trail counterclockwise, at least those who have been here before. It’s both more beautiful and easier to do it clockwise. If anyone is hiking my direction today, we don’t catch up to each other.
I’m on the lookout for wildlife, but they must be hunkered down. Three chipmunks, that’s it. I check out the den door, where last year large marmots were scurrying to and fro with mouthfuls of food for the hibernation. Nothing. Finally, on the last uphill leg of the hike, I spot pikas in the talus field, and three marmots.
Back in the parking lot that had maybe six cars (I didn’t count) when I arrived, I find it now full with the overflow parked along the road. The sun keeps ducking behind a cloud, and clouds are drifting over the mountain. I got the best of the day, again. The mountain through the visitor center windows is heading for a nap, pulling the covers over her head.
If the Inn weren’t shuttered for the season (it closed the day before), I would sit by the fire and eat my lunch. Instead, I head down to the less peopley Longmire, which has no place to sit inside, and park in the sun to eat and read my book in the car.
I can’t believe I get to live here.