“Nothing is yours, but everything is for you.”
—Puma Quispe Singona
My friend Katherine from North Carolina is visiting. Katherine and I met when we both lived in Raleigh, her home town. Now she lives in Celo, a communal community in the South Toe River valley in the western mountains of NC, and I live in the Pacific Northwest. She left her birth place and I returned to mine. We are both in our spirit homes now.
I got to visit her home, her river, and her Black Mountains (at least from afar) a couple of years ago, and now I am thrilled to be sharing mine, up close.
Part One: St. Helens
Our adventures begin with Mt. St. Helens on Saturday. We leave early, timing our departure to hit the espresso kiosk when it opens and get to Elk Rock for sunrise. Sadly, because I never adventure on the weekend, I didn’t know none of the coffee places open before six on Saturday. Not even Starbucks. Once one has traveled the hour until opening time—or even half that—there are no more coffee opportunities on the way to St. Helens. This is rural Lewis County. No adventure lattes today.
But we do get to Elk Rock by 6:30. And sunrise is incomparable.
We have chosen the Coldwater Lake ridge hike for the day, but first we run up to Johnston Observatory before it gets peoplely, with a stop at the lake and then the Loowit overlook. The clouds are breathtakingly beautiful, and we are giddy with our good fortune to be here, at this time, on this day as they shift and re-create themselves.
A large mountain goat greets us at the closed visitor’s center, but I’ve chosen to bring binoculars rather than my camera on this venture (that won’t happen again) and it’s too far away for my iPhone. I must be satisfied with the memory recording.
We drive the seven miles back down to the trailhead and start up through the forest as the sun rises through the trees and the clouds at the ridge continue to astonish us. On this amazing morning, while others are sleeping, we feel called out as special witnesses to nature’s daily re-creation of the planet. Nothing is yours, but everything is for you.
The transformation from summer’s glory to winter’s silence is in process. Autumn is the turning point, and my favorite season. There are still a few lingering flowers.
The star of this hike is the logging equipment thrown here from somewhere else, its twisted steel a testament to the power of the blast. “Nature’s revenge,” Katherine muses. It will never biodegrade, but in forty-one years, the earth has started to cover it. One day, one year, one decade, one century hence, soil and vegetation will hide it, as it is already covering the logs that lay on top of the ground the first time I did this hike.
Coldwater Lake, just forty-one years old, is host to an armada of red and blue kayaks—tiny dots in this expanse of creation—and two renegades who are not staying with the host. “That would be us,” Katherine says. True words.
We round one last turn of the trail to look into a stunningly steep slope where the bare-boned trees taken down by the blast still stand out, uncovered by decades of blowing ash and dirt, then turn back and retrace our steps.
After lunch with our feet in the lake, and a stop at Elk Rock for a selfie—evidence that we were here—where the clouds have all dissipated, we turn for home.
Visit Katherine’s work to build a culture in which people live in accordance with the planet’s regenerative cycles here.
Part Two: Paradise
Following a day of rest—a three-hour zoom gathering for Katherine around her amazing work as a death midwife, a long walk in the Seminary Hill Natural Area, and thirteen half-pints of applesauce—we are off to Mt. Rainier. There are so very many places to hike in the national park, and multiple entrances, it’s a bit of a hard call. But given one day (unless it doesn’t rain as predicted on the weekend) to show this wonder to someone who has never been and may not return, it has to be Paradise. And it’s time for my annual autumn pilgrimage anyway.
We don’t leave early this time, it’s cold today at 5400 feet, and there are early clouds in the lowlands and possibly in the high altitudes too. We are on the road at seven with coffee in hand. (I know, that’s early for many people.)
We are greeted at nine o’clock by a nearly empty parking lot (it’s after Labor Day, but still it’s full when we return to the car), a missing mountain, gray jays, and . . . a bear! I’ve never seen a bear here.
I’ve chosen my usual route up to the ridge, the lesser traveled Golden Gate trail that cuts the Skyline loop in half. It takes a long time to walk four miles here if one stops every few steps in wonder at the dew-dappled flower petals and to play paparazzi to posing marmots. And we want to save time for the also lesser-traveled Moraine trail on the other side of the meadows. We are hopeful by the time we get to the ridge, Herself will drag out of her cloudy slumber.
She is out in her glory when we reach the top, but she will spend the rest of the day ducking in and out of clouds. The Tatoosh range, however, finally comes out and stays out, though Mt. Adams remains hidden in either clouds or the smoky haze of a distant forest fire.
The reason for this annual pilgrimage, besides autumn color and the marmots and ground squirrels, is to pay homage to my mother and father and thank them for their many gifts to me, including bringing me to this place as a child. Three years ago, I scattered some of my mother’s ashes in this spot, and watched as they hovered over the valley and sparkled in the sunlight, before drifting off into a world I could not follow her to. Dark chocolate for her, peanuts for him.
We travel separate and silent down the ridge, with all the beauty nature has to offer. Bees and butterflies gathering nectar, plants producing berries for the bears, squirrels, and marmots. (Regretfully, we see no marmots gathering food for hibernation.)
As with marmots, it’s hard to get enough of “old man of the mountain,” the third stage of anemone or western pasque flower.
As happens not infrequently on the trail if I stop to chat with a stranger, a moment of serendipity pops up. We meet a volunteer “meadow rover” coming up the trail; a retiree around my age. I chat with him a bit about our trail route and my preferences, that match his. He confirms for me that the now-gone ice caves my family of origin visited were indeed at the end of the Paradise Glacier trail, and that the Nisqually Glacier did extend down to where it could be viewed from the bridge on the road when I was a child. It has receded beyond a visual point now.
Then he happens to mention he once worked for Weyerhaeuser, and I reveal that my father had worked for the company and was director of forestry research, George Staebler. “I knew George Staebler!” he exclaimed. He worked in Coos Bay, OR, a research site my father, in his capacity, visited frequently. My eyes got watery, to meet someone in such a random place who knew my long-gone dad. I didn’t tell him I had just left an offering of food (“don’t feed the animals”) at the site where I scattered some of my mother’s ashes (I’m sure that’s illegal), but I felt a closing of the circle. Thank you for being there, Alan Anderson! (I’ve taken your suggestion and checked the website. I’m going to do it!)
We continue our way back to the Inn, eat lunch, and plow up to the Moraine trail. Clouds are solidly obscuring the mountain now, and it doesn’t look like she’ll come back out, so we go just far enough on the trail to look for marmots. They’ve had a morning of being cute by now, and are reluctant to interrupt naptime to pose.
One more stop, in Ashford at the Base Camp Bar & Grill. After seven and a half miles of hiking up and down a mountain, we are ready. The beauty does not belong to us, but it is freely given for our enjoyment. Please, let’s take care of the gift.
Next up on our mountains to sea adventure, the Olympic Peninsula: ocean and rain forest.